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The Kids are All Right: A higher percentage of Americans under 30 read for pleasure than those over 30.
October 24, 2012 2:41 PM   Subscribe

Younger Americans' Reading and Library Habits: "The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has taken a special look at readers between the ages of 16 and 29... This report examines how they encounter and consume books in different formats. It flows out of a larger effort to assess the reading habits of all Americans ages 16 and older as e-books change the reading landscape and the borrowing services of libraries."
posted by ocherdraco (63 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interestingly, the 30-somethings are leading on reading ebooks, not younger people (25% having read an ebook, versus 20% or less for younger groups).

They note that ebooks can be read on phones and desktops as well as dedicated devices, but it is still harder to legally borrow/acquire cheap ebooks than it is for print books - my library has a limit of 10 ebooks, but I know that I used to borrow print books by the dozens as a teenager, and I spent a huge amount of money on used books for only $1-2.
posted by jb at 2:54 PM on October 24, 2012


So 17% of Americans between 16 and 29 haven't read a book in the past year, either for pleasure or as research or for school.

As a college instructor, this should not be a shock, but it still makes me so, so sad for that 17%.
posted by Rallon at 3:04 PM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


That 30-somethings are the leading users of eReaders (not by that much, though) is not surprising. Lots of teens already have smart phones through their parents, but an e-reader is a separate investment of capital.

Further, I expect a many* of your office-worker types are using library stuff without even realizing it. We generally try to get out of the way when it comes to giving people access to stuff.

* I wouldn't even go so far as a "plurality" on this though. There are lots of special libraries out there, but not that many.
posted by Decimask at 3:09 PM on October 24, 2012


Rallon: “So 17% of Americans between 16 and 29 haven't read a book in the past year, either for pleasure or as research or for school.”

And they're actually doing better than older people, apparently. According to that page, 22% of people 16+ haven't read a book in any format in the past year.

But that's probably a pretty negative way of looking at it. I rather like the trend of young people reading more than older people, and hope it continues in that vein.
posted by koeselitz at 3:11 PM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


... as it says, Rallon:

from article: “High schoolers (ages 16-17) and college-aged adults (ages 18-24), along with adults in their thirties, are especially likely to have read a book in the past year, while adults ages 65 and older are the least likely to have read a book in that time span.”
posted by koeselitz at 3:12 PM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


"So 17% of Americans between 16 and 29 haven't read a book in the past year... makes me so, so sad for that 17%"

What's really sad is that some of those in the 17% group can't read at all.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 3:14 PM on October 24, 2012


consume books

(shudders)
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 3:25 PM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


read a book or used the library

Two completely, absolutely different things.
posted by scratch at 3:34 PM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


So 17% of Americans between 16 and 29 haven't read a book in the past year, either for pleasure or as research or for school.

As a college instructor, this should not be a shock, but it still makes me so, so sad for that 17%.
I overhead my coworkers (mid-20s) talking about how they never read because they don't have much free time, so when they do, they don't want to waste it reading a book, let alone something made up. I just don't. I don't. I don't know.
posted by deathpanels at 3:36 PM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


These people are known as philistines.
posted by mr. digits at 3:48 PM on October 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


read a book or used the library

Two completely, absolutely different things.


Seriously. I've known readers who don't even know where the library is.

*weeps for America*
posted by DU at 3:50 PM on October 24, 2012


Lots of teens already have smart phones through their parents, but an e-reader is a separate investment of capital.

And then there was the 7-year-old kid sitting behind me on the plane the other day, happily explaining to her neighbor how everyone in the family had their own Kindle Fire, including her 4-year-old sibling. She then did the math to announce that her mom must have spent $800 on Kindles. Judging by the ensuing conversation, I got the impression that the mother was mortified. But the days of cheap reading devices for every child are really not that far in the future. For some 7- and 4-year-olds they are already here.
posted by stopgap at 3:52 PM on October 24, 2012


BOOKS are cheap reading devices for every child. Been to your local thrift store lately? At mine they're piled up in drifts.
posted by scratch at 3:53 PM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


And libraries are even cheaper. No need to snark.
posted by stopgap at 3:59 PM on October 24, 2012


consume books

(shudders)


That is exactly the right verb. Consume, devour, swallow, chew on, taste. When I first read Nabokov I got drunk on his words. And tonight, I will feast.
posted by Tomorrowful at 4:00 PM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


None intended, sorry.
posted by scratch at 4:00 PM on October 24, 2012


There have always been non-readers, and people who don't go to libraries. They may live happy, fulfilling lives for all I know. I always find it funny that voracious readers cannot conceive of any way that people could not exist without shelves full, piles in front of the shelves, and stacks next to every armchair, because that's just hoarding. Not every book is valuable, and reading is not the only way to live.

Speaking as someone who is simultaneously working my way through Moby-Dick in book form, Kindle version, and audio (in the car) and who just bought one digital and one hard-back book today. But my daughter is worse, because she hasn't reached the age where she can bear to get rid of a book she has bought.
posted by Peach at 4:11 PM on October 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Let me know when that age happens. Because the two 37 year olds at our place can't afford a fourth or fifth bedroom, and despite our recent love of Kindles, we're still probably going to need to learn how to prune some day.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 4:22 PM on October 24, 2012


My son is in first grade. First grade classrooms are filled with books, paper books. My son knows that I'm often in front of my laptop but I'm not sure he knows there's such a thing as an e-book, though I've certainly read some.
posted by escabeche at 4:28 PM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


deathpanels: “I overhead my coworkers (mid-20s) talking about how they never read because they don't have much free time, so when they do, they don't want to waste it reading a book, let alone something made up. I just don't. I don't. I don't know.”

If nothing else, this study is nice just because it gives us the comfort of knowing that those people are firmly in the minority.
posted by koeselitz at 4:38 PM on October 24, 2012


DU: I've known readers who don't even know where the library is.

See, more importantly, I'm a reader who knows which branches have bedbugs.

That's when my e-book consumption jumped.
posted by cobaltnine at 4:40 PM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


they don't have much free time, so when they do, they don't want to waste it reading a book, let alone something made up

the made up ones are the most fun.
posted by jb at 4:42 PM on October 24, 2012


My 14 year old voracious reader received a Nook Simple Touch for Christmas from an auntie and adoption has been rocky to nonexistent for him. I gave up buying content for it when he kept requesting I buy the paper book version the day after he finished reading the ebook version. When I asked him why he preferred the printed book, he said that it felt more real and the words stuck in his head better...which I couldn't quibble with because I sometimes feel the same way.
posted by jamaro at 4:45 PM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


My 14 year old voracious reader received a Nook Simple Touch for Christmas from an auntie and adoption has been rocky to nonexistent for him.

HOPE
posted by DU at 5:03 PM on October 24, 2012


Rallon: "So 17% of Americans between 16 and 29 haven't read a book in the past year, either for pleasure or as research or for school.

As a college instructor, this should not be a shock, but it still makes me so, so sad for that 17%.
"

Ok, hold on. I'm 24 and in grad school and I believe I fall into this statistic. Pretty sure the pleasure book I just finished took over a year to get through, and I never actually read entire books for school as opposed to specific chapters from books and a whole ton of research articles.

It does suck that I don't have time to read a good novel, but I'm pretty sure you don't have to be as sad for me as you think. When you combine school work and all of the stuff I read on the Internet for pleasure I'm reading for a significant chunk of each day. It was pretty much the same way during undergrad.

To be honest I'm surprised this percentage is that low.
posted by Defenestrator at 5:18 PM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Let me know when that age happens. Because the two 37 year olds at our place can't afford a fourth or fifth bedroom, and despite our recent love of Kindles, we're still probably going to need to learn how to prune some day.

Mine's 30, and not only is her house filled with books, she has a wall of books still in the house we moved to after she moved out. She is getting her Ph.D. in English, though, so I have hopes when she finishes that she will be able to contemplate the departure of some of the books. Either that or get them out of my house.

My sixth grade students like to read on Kindle, and they read a lot, but they're the children of affluent parents who know (because we've drummed it into them) that reading fluency is improved by reading.

That said, we have more kids this year reading below grade level than ever before.
posted by Peach at 5:24 PM on October 24, 2012


I write this knowing I'm an "outlier".

At 12, I was lucky enough to have access to a (private school) library that had a diverse range of titles; from Catch 22 to 12 Angry Men, with some English authors such as Elliot thrown in, and so on, right the way down to The Mammoth Hunters. Our school finished at 13 (the way our schools are structured), but, I could easily read an entire "adult" selection of books.


As such, this thread is rather... ah, how would you say it?

"Just because your parents are alcoholics, doesn't mean you have to be one too"?


Hard reality time:

1) A significant % of people past their education barrier will no longer read, and if they do, you're lucky if they read the articles; if you want a really frank insight into PlayBoy, you should read the Congress / Presidential reports on why PlayBoy was useful to them during the Cold War: hint - if they weren't reading anything else, you'd get to them that way. Do I have to spell out the entire CIA funded structure of American news? Hint: The CIA and FBI funded a major line in magazines, articles and fluffy reading... all the way past 2011.

~Conclusion: TPTB are not stupid, and "reading habits" are already priced in

2) If we consider the trends within "popular" literature, such as 50 Shades of Grey, then you have to consider who is publishing it, and moreover, who is considering the ideological message within it useful. Go 1-1 rounds with any serious publisher, and you'll know ~ target market, sales is all.

~ Let's just say. I find it interesting that the major break-out mass-media female targeted sales in the last couple of years are centred on sociopathic (rich) males and women abasing themselves to that power base. Hint: it ain't coincidence, Dorothy.

3) This entire study is bunk. Fact. Look up your functional illiteracy rates in America (currently around ~22.5% reading under grade 5), then factor in the next couple of tiers. Americans do not read as a past time. If you want a few hundred sources, I'm happy to provide them, however, it is well documented that America (for GDP / Education) has the lowest reading percentile in the "developed" world.

~ There's no argument to this, the UN, the US gov and everyone else inbetween knows this.


As such ~ the OP's link is an oddity, and attempting to prove that mermaids love base jumping. Please; let's not pretend that in 1988 that the average American citizen versus the average Soviet citizen had any equivalence in reading.

Nor should we do the same for... what? Inuits today?
posted by Cheradenine Zakalwe at 6:12 PM on October 24, 2012


My son is in first grade. First grade classrooms are filled with books, paper books. My son knows that I'm often in front of my laptop but I'm not sure he knows there's such a thing as an e-book, though I've certainly read some.

My preschooler has just recently made the connection between my Nook and "Daddy's book".

I was little nervous there for a while since everyone tells us we're supposed to "model good reading habits" but she's probably seen me read maybe 3 or 4 actual books her entire life.
posted by madajb at 6:21 PM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Apologies for the lack of links ~

14% of Americans are illterate [2003] https://nces.ed.gov/naal/estimates/index.aspx


In 2002, the US Department of education showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not “able to locate information in text,” could not “make low-level inferences using printed materials,” and were unable to “integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.”
The same study showed that 41% to 44% of U.S. adults in the lowest level on the literacy scale are living in poverty.
There have been no improvements in literacy rates since 1993.
In 2008, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 15% of adults could read and comprehend at the highest level.
A National Endowment for the Arts report titled “Reading at Risk” found that only 57% of American adults had read a book in 2002.
According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 1 in 4 adults have not read any books at all in the past year. Of those that did, men were the least avid readers.
A Gallup poll in 2005 showed that people started (started mind you, not finished) only 5 books a year, down from 10 in 1999. In just 6 years, people were reading 50% less than they before, and it’s been an additional 6 years since those statistics were published.




As such ~ this post is rather like crowing over finding a Dodo alive. Doesn't mean the species survives.
posted by Cheradenine Zakalwe at 6:31 PM on October 24, 2012


Seriously. I've known readers who don't even know where the library is.


That's far better than the opposite, which I see in droves at work: people who come to the library every day to play online games, do Facebook, or watch YouTube videos, but never, ever so much as glance at the books. And it's fairly safe to say that it's not because they're reading on mobile devices or e-readers.
posted by Rykey at 6:40 PM on October 24, 2012


Cheradenine Zakalwe's ~ odd punctuation ~ aside, I rather agree. Only 17% of Americans don't read, when 20% or more are functionally illiterate? Having been an educator of poor and working class people, that number feels really inaccurate. At that level, I had more people I would consider "literacy challenged" than otherwise, and there were a number of students who complained that their English classes had the temerity to assign a book to read.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:49 PM on October 24, 2012


I read a hell of a lot, but most of it is online these days. Trying to draw an intellectual and value distinction upon which of the various artifacts where words I read appear seems ~ privileged.

Likewise, there will always be a "highest level" of reading comprehension that only the smartest will achieve, though we can keep trying to move the baseline along. While I feel for the 3 in 20 who aren't literate, I'm heartened that 17 in 20 are, at whatever level they find useful.
posted by maxwelton at 6:50 PM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Folks if you have meta issues with this site or with this thread you need to take them to MetaTalk and not here. Otherwise please have a conversation with the people who are currently here and don't just turn this thread into the soapbox you want to have. Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:01 PM on October 24, 2012


If that was to me, I apologise.

I'll bow out of thread ~ real world illiteracy figures get me irked, and their impact is huge in terms of both functioning within a society and one's ability to engage with it. Shouldn't cloud this thread with my prejudices. (Aka, if your base line is 10%, an increase of 50% of that isn't a major triumph).

/derail over, off to eat humble pie.


However ~ what counts as reading? XKCD and so on? The recent Humble Bundle (which I threw a good amount of $ at, just because) proves this point. I finished 3 of the books in a night, and none of them were well written or intellectually adept.


~Leaves, palm leaves on the floor etc.
posted by Cheradenine Zakalwe at 7:15 PM on October 24, 2012


MCMikeNamara: "Let me know when that age happens. Because the two 37 year olds at our place can't afford a fourth or fifth bedroom, and despite our recent love of Kindles, we're still probably going to need to learn how to prune some day."

BookMooch cured my fear of letting books go free. Giving them to HPB is all but a guarantee they'll end up in the dumpster, but giving them to someone who wants them when I'm not reading them feels good.

Of course, if you use the points you gain to get more books, it doesn't solve the space issue. But you don't have the spend them; you could hoard them or donate them.
posted by Gordafarin at 12:35 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Peach: "There have always been non-readers, and people who don't go to libraries. They may live happy, fulfilling lives for all I know."

Some of them do. I do.

I was a voracious reader as a child. At some point in elementary school I won a prize for having read the most books of any student in the school (and I wasn't reading them to win the prize, either, as I was totally unaware of it). I was a big reader until around university. And then, over the course of the next few years, as the Internet grew, my reading habits totally trailed off.

Most MeFites, and most intelligent people in general, take it as a given that anyone who doesn't read is a simpleton, or that they aren't aware of what a joy reading is. That may often be the case, but not always. I know how fun reading can be; I used to love it. But the fact of the matter is that I no longer do. (And, hopefully, it's not because I've become an idiot over the years)

For a long time (a long time), I felt guilty about the fact that I wasn't reading. I tried switching up genres to see if there was something that appealed to me more, but while I might enjoy a book a bit, it was never enough to make me want to rush out and get another book to read. Also, I'd always felt guilty that I wasn't into non-fiction, because that's what intelligent adults are supposed to be interested in.

After, I dunno, a decade or so of feeling guilty about my non-reading habits (from maybe age 25 to age 35), I finally came to grips with it. There was no use feeling depressed every time a thread like this came up, or forcing myself to slog through some book that I didn't really enjoy just so that I could put a check in my mental checkbox "Read at least one book this year".

The only thing that still gives me anxiety, and quite a bit of it, is that I know that reading as a child was a wonderful influence on me. It broadened my vocabulary, and taught me how to express myself and think logically. But what about my own children? I'm supposed to be teaching by example, but they never see me pick up a book.

I just hope that perhaps, with the changing of the generations, the medium will cease to be so important. Instead of thinking "Dad never reads (books)", they will be thinking, "Dad is always reading (things on the computer)."
posted by Bugbread at 1:12 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


"20% of Americans have problems reading" and "80% of Americans read a book in the last year" are not incompatible. It's entirely possible to have both high levels of illiteracy and a flourishing literate society in the same country. We've must always have had that, in fact.

More generally, I work in print impairment - for example, people with dyslexia. Many find reading more difficult, but still read books - for work, or even for fun, even though it's trickier and they might score badly on tests for literacy. Conversely I know people - we all do - who can read just fine but never read for fun or education outside of work because they just don't want to.

So what DO we know? We know that lots of people still buy and borrow and read books. That seems really quite straightforward. There are lots of very very interesting questions, like where they get the books from, but books are still there.

Oh, I have a suggestion: younger people read on their laptops and 'phones because they've got their books through Bittorrent, so it's easier to move the books (usually PDF files) from device to device. Maybe, although I think the "kids already have a 'phone or laptop, another device is more money" is still a better explanation.
posted by alasdair at 3:12 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't understand why we think reading is so important.

Before you string me up and start hitting me with sticks, let me finish. I love to read, and I instinctively feel sad when I hear people don't read.

Some of the stuff that people could be reading is complete trash. The Twilight books are a good example -- addictive, easy, poorly formulated, and full of problematic sexual politics that I really wouldn't want a teenaged girl internalizing. The kind of stuff my stepdad reads also falls in this category: Westerns that are about as imaginative and mind-expanding as clipping your toenails, also with the bonus problematic sexual politics.

Yet, I'll hear about these kinds of books: At least they're reading.

Why do we care so much about the fact that they're reading rather than what they're reading? What is it about the medium that causes us to venerate it so much? It used to be that we actually looked down on certain kinds of reading -- novels were the equivalent of watching Sex in the City.

I'm not saying reading in itself is not important. I'm just interested in y'all's thoughts about why it is. I feel like it is but I have trouble justifying it to myself.

My mom used to get on my case for watching too much television. I was watching documentaries about space and dinosaurs and history, and she would have been happy if I had turned them off to read The Dragonriders of Pern. Later, I graduated into an avid non-fiction reader, but she didn't notice the shift in content; she focused on the amount. (To be clear, I read a lot of non-fiction and fiction both, and walked around with my nose in a book half the time, but never achieved quite the book per week count she did.)

And note I'm not asking about people who have problems reading -- that's tragic and should be addressed. I'm more interested in why it should be better for me to read Twilight than to watch The Vampire Diaries.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:27 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's been a while since I thought that I was cool enough to play with Sartre, Kutsuwamushi, but I recollect that in a text on the meaning of art he expounds on the separation between visual art (paintings, in his text) and textual narratives. He considered textual narratives to be the art where an author could easily invest symbolic or metaphoric import in something which would otherwise be strictly quotidian, like a window, whereas in a picture with no further instruction that window would be perceived simply as a window.

So how does that lead us to believe that reading Twilight is a better practice than watching The Vampire Diaries?

I don't know that it is. However, I do assume that a person who is reading and enjoying Stephanie Meyer is more likely to read another book than someone who isn't reading anything, and I also believe that if nothing else the entertainment provided by Meyer, being a textual narrative, may engage and stimulate the mind more than television. I imagine that the mind is a muscle of sorts, and that therefore it benefits from exercise. And walking is a damn sight better than nothing.

Also: when we discuss the medium here, I presume that we're talking about long-form prose, as opposed to the question of whether one reads it on a page or a screen. I am not well-read on electronic devices, but if physical books were not available I certainly would be. A rose by any other name would indeed smell just as sweet.
posted by mr. digits at 4:58 AM on October 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interestingly, the 30-somethings are leading on reading ebooks,

More interesting (to me at least) is that they are leading in reading period. The drop off in numbers after that, in particular after age 65, when supposedly you have more time, is puzzling.

Thoughts?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:12 AM on October 25, 2012


IndigoJones: "The drop off in numbers after that, in particular after age 65, when supposedly you have more time, is puzzling.

Thoughts?
"

Perhaps boredom? I wouldn't be surprised if there were people who, after reading for decades, get a "been there, done that" vibe every time they open a book.
posted by Bugbread at 5:16 AM on October 25, 2012


Part of the answer lies in the mental effort required. You can watch a television show or movie and not really pay attention. It's a lot more difficult to say the same about reading a book. I know I've completely zoned out while reading, but there comes a point when you have to stop reading, go back to the last point that held your attention, and pick it up again. With a TV show, when that happens you generally just skip off to the next episode instead. There's an investment not only in time, but effort, required in reading over viewing, and that is an important distinction.

As for the quality of the material, I think that's an independent issue. We are going to consume material appropriate to our interests, regardless of medium. If someone's only reading is comic books, discouraging that because you don't feel that's material of sufficient quality won't make them turn to more respected forms of literature. They'll watch superhero cartoons and movies instead. There's nothing wrong with that - I watch and read total crap and classic literature equally, and I enjoy it all equally.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:19 AM on October 25, 2012


Thoughts? Physical limitations, especially in terms of eyesight?

I know that there are sixty-five year olds in better shape than I, but there are also lots of 80 year old people who are feeling the wear on their systems.
posted by mr. digits at 5:40 AM on October 25, 2012


I don't understand why we think reading is so important.

I'll attempt an answer, and not be so flippant as I was before.

Reading actively defines us as conscious minds, and the very act of reading changes our brain's functions.

Couple of neuroscience papers on this, easily digestible.

As an aphorism, "the mind is a muscle" is perhaps a cliche now, however, it is correct. If you don't read, you're not utilising parts of your brain, and as such, they'll atrophy (television will rot your brain).

In a broader sense, that drop off in senior readers is to be expected as a function of age in a society such as America, both in medical terms (ageing minds) and where there's a large culture of passive interactions just coming into the fore (the first generation of OAP's with a majority who were born into watching television). This is a hunch, however, pure reflexive thought on the question.

There's also the (perhaps non-causative link) between literacy, behaviour management / impulse control / violent crime, economic place in society and so on (example); it simply isn't healthy for your society to have ~20%+ illiteracy rates (for either those who are illiterate or those who aren't). However, looking at the ways in which reading shapes our minds, there's some argument to be made that reading does, in fact, have a causative impact on these issues. Yes, that bug-bear about "eduction as civilisation".


Back to the study ~ I suspect that both the methodology (phone call to households? Well, you just selected for a certain minimum baseline economic slice right there) and focus (does Reddit count as reading? It might rot your mind in other ways, especially if you catch the Libertarian mimetic virus that inhabits it, perhaps) are somewhat off.


But overall - of course it's important to read. If you're not reading, where are you getting your information about the world you live in from?
posted by Cheradenine Zakalwe at 6:44 AM on October 25, 2012


("education as civilisation")

The edit button timed out; neat little device there to prevent ninja edits, I'll have to proof-read much betterer in future...
posted by Cheradenine Zakalwe at 6:53 AM on October 25, 2012


More interesting (to me at least) is that they are leading in reading period. The drop off in numbers after that, in particular after age 65, when supposedly you have more time, is puzzling.

Some things that pop to mind:

1: Economic groups where reading isn't a high-value activity.
2: Post-retirement poverty that limits disposable income.
3: Age-linked illness and disabilities that make handling books and reading text difficult.
4: Age-linked illness and disabilities that interfere with library or bookstore visits.

To use one couple in my extended family as an example, one is blind, has substantial motion problems, and is uninterested in audiobooks. The other is having increasing difficulty handling paperbacks due to progressive arthritis.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:04 AM on October 25, 2012


Reading actively defines us as conscious minds, and the very act of reading changes our brain's functions.

The very act of doing anything changes the brain's functions. Reading is not special in this regard. Also, I don't know what "reading actively defines us as conscious minds" actually means; as a researcher who studies reading and the brain I have no idea what you're talking about. Are, say, children with dyslexia not as conscious as normal-developing children? What about people who were born before the printed word was even invented--were they not conscious? This is a rather radical proposal.

If you don't read, you're not utilising parts of your brain, and as such, they'll atrophy (television will rot your brain).

I haven't directly compared the research, but based on what I know about the brain I'm almost certain that watching television uses a far greater percentage of the brain than does reading, if only because it would stimulates the visual cortex to a far greater extent (motion processing areas, color processing areas, etc. etc.), and the vision processing areas take up way more of the brain than you'd think (about a third, give or take). And that's not to mention the auditory processing necessary to follow the speech and music being presented, the frontal areas necessary for remembering what's going on and following the social relationships (which is possibly why those cognitive processes developed in the first place!), the greater engagement of the limbic system by television, etc. There's a reason that television is so popular; if it didn't stimulate the brain, no-one would watch it. Only a single part of the brain has been proposed to be specific to reading (it supposedly is specifically devoted to processing the forms of letters), and even that is controversial.

Reading for pleasure is important inasmuch as it gives practice in rapidly processing the written word, which is still the best way to rapidly absorb certain/most kinds of information. I do think its importance is overstated, though, and that a child who is exposed to a variety of forms of media, including books, music, interactive entertainment, and, yes, television, will probably wind up with a broader range of cognitive, social, and perceptual skills than a child who only reads.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:30 AM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


My young-teen daughter has a Nook, but she still reads a half-dozen paperbacks (from the library!) each week because she can't afford to buy that many ebooks, and I won't Bittorrent/pirate them, and using MacOS+Overdrive+Adobe+Nook is just a huge pain in the ass that we still can't get to work.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:35 AM on October 25, 2012


ljonTichy (I've no idea how to quote yet, please bear with formatting hiccups)

Are children with dyslexia not as conscious?

No, but they certainly have a consciousness that is different from non-dyslexic children; there's no moral value attached to this statement. i.e. I'm not making a qualitative claim for "better" or "worse" here. Added to this is that dyslexic children are also able to learn to read, even if it is harder for them. As far as I understand it, it's more a matter of visual processing than cognition, but I don't have your depth of knowledge of the field.

However, there is evidence that reading does improve connectivity in the brain:


The current understanding of hemispheric interaction is limited... In the present study we investigated the importance of one factor, literacy, for the functional lateralization in the inferior parietal cortex in two independent samples of literate and illiterate subjects. The results show that the illiterate group are consistently more right-lateralized than their literate controls...The results showed differences between literacy groups in white matter intensities related to the mid-body region of the corpus callosum and the inferior parietal and parietotemporal regions (literate > illiterate). There were no corresponding differences in the grey matter. This suggests that the influence of literacy on brain structure related to reading and verbal working memory is affecting large-scale brain connectivity more than grey matter per se.


Paywall link, I'll attempt to find a free one.

I will freely admit to subscribing to the theory that Grammar in language (and learning said grammar) has a large cognitive impact on a subject, and that a subject who doesn't possess Grammar will be fundamentally different in scope in terms of their abilities. Grammar acquisition is a process which learning to read necessarily demands. Thus, when I referred "to actively defines us as conscious minds", I was referring to our ~8,000 year old journey of "recorded civilisation", and the concept / ability to read, not the activity of sampling Proust, per se.

Once you learn to read, you've changed your brain permanently. I'm unsure if the same is true for watching television, however:

Among infants (age 8 to 16 months), each hour per day of viewing baby DVDs/videos was associated with a 16.99-point decrement in CDI score in a fully adjusted model (95% confidence interval = −26.20 to −7.77). Among toddlers (age 17 to 24 months), there were no significant associations between any type of media exposure and CDI scores. Amount of parental viewing with the child was not significantly associated with CDI scores in either infants or toddlers.

Again, the cursed Elsevier strikes.


That's what I was referring to "rotting your brain". Of course, this could simply be a correlation between a parent plopping a child in front of a television and ignoring them as opposed to being interactive with them, and the same results would occur for a child plonked in front of a stack of books.


Edit ~ I also realise that I deliberately conflated the two meanings of reading in my previous post. I should have been clearer about that.
posted by Cheradenine Zakalwe at 10:20 AM on October 25, 2012


(Aff, not used to this Edit timing out)

Also, "rotting your brain" has a lot of social / cultural weight attached to it, which I was also intending. I don't own a television, and I find (most) of its contents to be negative.
posted by Cheradenine Zakalwe at 10:27 AM on October 25, 2012


[Folks, edit window is a new feature and should be used for typo fixing only, please refer to the FAQ or hit us up on the contact form if you have questions.]
posted by jessamyn at 10:29 AM on October 25, 2012


I will freely admit to subscribing to the theory that Grammar in language (and learning said grammar) has a large cognitive impact on a subject

There's no consensus among researchers that this is in fact the case -- at least not beyond the observation that language is itself a cognitive ability. Its broader impact is unknown. The problem is that we have no control; we can't deprive a child of its normal linguistic input to see what cognition looks like in a human being whose development is normal except for the lack of language. In the field this is often referred to as 'the forbidden experiment.'

But this is irrelevant, because --

Grammar acquisition is a process which learning to read necessarily demands.

Grammar acquisition is a process that happens regardless of whether you learn to read. I think it's probably safe to say that most humans have been illiterate, and most languages unwritten. They had grammar just as well-developed and complex as English, though.

The written word is just a way to encode a grammar that already exists. Little tweaks to the rules that are made for the purpose of standardization are incredibly superficial and limited in scope compared to the actual grammar of the language. No one who does research in language acquisition would ever, ever conflate learning read with learning grammar.

As for the articles you're digging up, they address impacts of literacy, which is not the same thing. Being able to read and how much you read are two separate issues. I don't think anyone here would question that literacy is important for Americans. We don't even need to get into the cognitive impacts for that.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:41 PM on October 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Grammar acquisition is a process that happens regardless of whether you learn to read. I think it's probably safe to say that most humans have been illiterate, and most languages unwritten. They had grammar just as well-developed and complex as English, though.

This is correct. Most grammar is mastered before the age of five. What literary generally requires (among other things) is mastery of the grammar and pragmatics of an additional linguistic mode.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:52 PM on October 25, 2012


Oh, and. Ugh, ok, I'll have to be contrary about this.

@Kutu~ Yes, which was why I was playing around with the two definitions of "reading". The "forbidden experiment" has, in fact, been studied and known about for a long while. Let's not... skip over some of the more unedifying parts of our shared history, shall we?

And no, the claim that there's "no change in grammar between the written word and language" is patently false. Many languages lack certain modal temporal frame-works. How can you possibly claim that grammar is universal if a good part of your grammar is based on temporal modes? And, obviously, writing things down for a future reader implies temporality.

If you're claiming that there's no difference between a vocal / narrative language record and a written record, then again cite sources. Everything I've read (even the falsified French Amazon stuff) suggests otherwise. There's a reason why the Sagas of Iceland, Beowulf, the Greek heroic epics (before theatre) and so on are different in both form and content.


Most grammar is mastered before the age of five. Basic grammar is. There would be no point at all in teaching language, grammar and so on if there weren't things to learn. So no, you're totally wrong here.



Please. Cite sources?
posted by Cheradenine Zakalwe at 2:36 PM on October 25, 2012


Cheradenine, I'm having a hard time understanding why you're having a hard time understanding Kutsuwamushi. He/she is not saying that all languages share the same grammar, nor that written and oral histories are identical, he/she is simply saying that written grammar and spoken grammar are the same. I don't see how that is a controversial statement, or one requiring citations. "You is right" is incorrect in both written and spoken English. "You are right" is correct in both written and spoken English.

Can you provide some examples (preferably in English, but if not, in any other language) where a written statement considered grammatically correct would be considered incorrect when read aloud, or a spoken statement considered grammatically correct would be considered incorrect when written down?
posted by Bugbread at 2:44 PM on October 25, 2012


Cheradenine: Oh, and. Ugh, ok, I'll have to be contrary about this.

Well, if you're going to insist on arguing about both developmental psychology and linguistics, you probably should learn a bit about it before you stick your foot in your mouth.

Of course, one of the things you're missing is that verbal modes have forms of grammar, pragmatics, and capabilities not found in formal written modes. For another data point, signed languages have a layer of grammar that concisely communicates concepts in a way that's difficult to communicate in written English.

There would be no point at all in teaching language, grammar and so on if there weren't things to learn.

Very little of what gets taught in formal education is, linguistically speaking, "grammar." Almost all of it is the rhetoric and pragmatics of a handful of linguistic modes that have a high status in our culture. A fair bit of it is actually wrong when applied to other modes. Prohibitions against double negatives, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences don't apply to other forms of rhetoric.

So no, you're totally wrong here.

Well if I'm wrong, so is the last century of psychology and linguistics.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:23 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bugbread: Can you provide some examples (preferably in English, but if not, in any other language) where a written statement considered grammatically correct would be considered incorrect when read aloud, or a spoken statement considered grammatically correct would be considered incorrect when written down?

Utterances like "um" and "uh-huh" are parts of spoken language that we routinely delete from written language. They are functional, transparently understood, and even necessary in informal spoken discourse. So of course there are differences in grammar across different linguistic nodes, the mistake is in thinking that formal written language is the most functionally complete version of that grammar (it's not) or that oral and signed modes don't have methods for complex structuring of information (they do.)

We know as a fact of history that cultures with a scarcity of media for writing developed rich cognitive systems for structuring, memorizing, and communicating complex ideas.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:54 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


CBrachyrhynchos: "Utterances like "um" and "uh-huh" are parts of spoken language that we routinely delete from written language."

They're grammatically correct interjections, as far as I know. For example, the sentence "I, um, like nachos" is not grammatically incorrect when written down.

I'm no languagehat, but I suspect you're using the word "grammar" to refer to something other than grammar.
posted by Bugbread at 4:33 PM on October 25, 2012


The "forbidden experiment" has, in fact, been studied and known about for a long while. Let's not... skip over some of the more unedifying parts of our shared history, shall we?

I'm not sure what history you're talking about.

I mentioned the forbidden experiment to you because you made a very bold claim: That grammar has a profound impact on cognition. I countered by saying that we don't actually know this to be true, because it's difficult to study.

Telling me that the forbidden experiment has been studied and known about for a long while is not a coherent response to that. I also can't tell what you even mean by "studied and known about." It hasn't been studied because it can't be done; it's just a convenient name for the thing we wish we could do but can't because of ethical reasons. We've known we can't do it since the development of modern methodologies, which ... has what to do with your point, exactly?

And no, the claim that there's "no change in grammar between the written word and language" is patently false. Many languages lack certain modal temporal frame-works. How can you possibly claim that grammar is universal if a good part of your grammar is based on temporal modes?

What? I made no claims whatsoever that grammar is universal. Nothing I said comes even close to implying it.

And, obviously, writing things down for a future reader implies temporality.

What does this even mean and what does it have to with your point? Words aren't precise just because they're fancy. You need to explain what you mean by "temporality" here, and what it has to do with the grammar.

If you're claiming that there's no difference between a vocal / narrative language record and a written record, then again cite sources.

I didn't claim that at all.

There would be no point at all in teaching language, grammar and so on if there weren't things to learn. So no, you're totally wrong here.

No, I'm afraid not -- you're the one who's wrong here. You're conflating grammar school education with actual grammar as linguists and psychologists and cognitive scientists etc understand it. The purpose of language instruction in school is to teach you the orthography and a specific formal style; it's not to teach you your language's grammar, which you already mostly know by the time you're in school. If you weren't able to go to school, you would still master your language's grammar by the time you were an adult.

You can see this in the fact that languages that aren't written are not more "basic" than languages that are.

Please. Cite sources?

It's difficult to cite sources for something so basic, especially as it's been years since I had a reason to look inside an introductory linguistics textbook. It's probably addressed in Language Files.

The scholarly literature doesn't address it, because it's not necessary; everyone in who does research in linguistics or language acquisition knows that the written word is not the source of grammar.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:11 PM on October 25, 2012


I'm no languagehat, but I suspect you're using the word "grammar" to refer to something other than grammar.

CBrachyrhynchos wasn't claiming that these interjections are ungrammatical, just that they aren't usually written. They seem to be using 'grammar' the way that people who study language do, and everything they've said so far has been on point.

Normally, I would let people speak up for themselves, but I'm not sure how long everyone's going to continue checking this thread. It has sort of devolved into a rehashing of basic linguistics, which is boring the hundredth time you do it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:20 PM on October 25, 2012


Re why older people don't read as much: My eyes don't work as well as they did, despite the cataract operation; I have some kind of blurry floater in my right eye that makes it non-functional for reading. I always had perfect eyesight, so it's galling to have to admit that I really can't make out the words sometimes in spite of having glasses. This getting old thing is hard work. And I'm an athletic, active person with a wide range of interests and a stimulating job. I can't imagine what it must be like if you're none of the above.
posted by Peach at 7:33 PM on October 25, 2012


Re why older people don't read as much

My post 65 observation was perhaps overstressed, since the peak reading years appear to be in one's thirties. What's up with forties and fifties?

As to the post 65 - Health, I suppose, though the geriatrics in acquaintance are up for books and even e-books. The poverty thing, well, up to a point; mileage varies according to location, of course, but free to low priced books are not so very difficult to find if you're interested. Not to be combative, in fact, I expect you all are probably right, but the drop-off does seems a bit precipitous. Perhaps if television and meds were not so widespread....

Still, interesting subject for some researcher. Appreciate the feedback.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:22 AM on October 26, 2012


What's up with forties and fifties?

I blame a combination of kids and flagging energy levels: since I had one, the days of being able to settle in for an long evening or weekend day of uninterrupted blocks of time are but a distant memory and when I finally do get to sit down, I'm spent. My reading time now starts at 10pm at the earliest and I've startled awake at 3 am with my nose buried in the spine of a book two pages past where I started more times than I care to admit.
posted by jamaro at 11:26 AM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


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