Today, over at literary agent Jonathan Lyons' blog (an excellent read, by the way), there was an interesting post about a new National Endowment for the Arts report about how readership is continually falling. They particularly pointed out how the reading levels of late teens were falling, while the reading level of nine year-olds was up a little bit. It was all very doom-and-gloom with the apparent hope of shocking people out of their apathy about reading, and from that angle I support what they were saying. People do need to read more! We all do!
However, I do have a less depressing theory about why at least some of the people in the 17-22 age bracket are reading less. I'm 24 myself, and I can tell you that I probably almost fit into those poor statistics (when it came to pleasure reading) during the 17-22 age bracket -- as did most of the other book lovers that my wife and I knew.
Now, all of us were certainly reading plenty of textbooks, newspaper/journal articles, and nonfiction works related to our careers (programming/computer work, in my case), but pleasure reading was a rare thing.
This is because the pressure on juniors and seniors in high school is higher now than it ever was, and most of us were taking 5 or 6 college-level classes that kept us busy. Plus all the various extracurriculars -- sports, music, clubs, etc -- that the modern teenager is involved in. College is also a very busy time for most, either because of all the intense socializing and such that many subscribe to, or (in my and my wife's case) all the extracurriculars. We both were working through college, not because we had to in order to make ends meet, but because we didn't want to erode all our savings while in college, and because we each had opportunities to jump-start our careers in a major way during that time period. The year after college is also very busy, often even traumatic, for most students as their social life disappears (if they were that sort) and they start job-hunting (in a very tight market at this point -- competition isn't just fierce in the publishing industry).
What my wife and I are now seeing, with all our friends having been out of college for a year or two, is that everyone is reading a lot more again. We recommend books to our friends and vice-versa, we talk about what we like, and some of our friends even formed an impromptu monthly book club as way to keep in touch.
If you look at what all of our reading habits are now, we're probably in the top to upper-middle percentages (depending on what else the individual has going on in a given month), whereas we were all in the lower percentages just a few years before. And these are all people who grew up reading in the top percentages, all of whom participated in "Battle of the Books" competitions and other reading programs as a kid, and most of whom write short stories, poetry, or novels.
I don't pretend to know what everyone in the world is doing, and certainly the lack of literacy in many people I know is a little bit shocking. However, statistics can be misleading, and I think the notion that the current generations won't have any/many readers is a false one. I think certain societal conditions make reading difficult even for those who love reading during the late teens and early twenties -- but before long, those who love it will resurface on the other side.
I suppose we'll see if I'm right in about 10 years, when we see the statistics for the late-twenties crowd. At worst, I would be willing to bet serious money that many people rediscover their love of reading when they have kids, and start reading to them. Hopefully that then leads to other kinds of reading for the adults themselves.