Reading is fundamental

I read. Often. I also write. I also have a vague notion of eventually calling myself a published author.

Mind you, there are a lot of obstacles in my way. One of them is literacy — as in lack thereof. Unsurprisingly, there’s a relationship between the number of people who are literate and the number of people who read books.

I came across a sad video.

That’s a seven-minute video. I went and looked for the original. Here it is:

Here’s the thing with the second video. I doubt many people will watch it. It’s 17 minutes. It’s funny, it’s informative, it’s depressing, but none of that matters . . . it’s 17 minutes long. Way, way, way longer than most people’s attention span.

Let me then summarize some of the points it covers. I will use a few slides that are screen captures from the actual video. If the Owner (TEDx or the presenter, Alexander Macris) wish me to remove them, let me know. Ain’t disclaimers wonderful? I mean, there’s no way either of them will read this piece. But if they do, I would like to ask them if the transcript of the presentation is available.

Anyway, the video — the full video — starts off by establishing the usefulness of reading. For that, he uses this chart (excuse the poor quality . . . or  don’t excuse it; watch the video):


Macris then looks at reading statistics spanning 300 years — 1710 to 2010 — of best-sellers, and this is where it starts to get depressing.

There’s a small piece of information that he doesn’t cover, so I looked it up. My thinking was that surely the literacy rate in colonial America was not that high. In fact, the few sources I read put the literacy rate at between 70% and 100%. That, by the way, is where it stands today (14% of US population is illiterate — that’s 32 million people). Meaning, the statistics spanning the 300 years can be compared. So, let’s compare them.

Best selling books, what people were reading then and what they are reading now.

Paragraph length held steady at about 100 words from 1700 until around 1950. After 1950 (television), the average paragraph length dropped to 71 words and held until 2000. After 2000 (Internet), the average paragraph length dropped to 58 words. This data goes only until 2010. I can only assume it’s less now (Twitter?)

Sentence length has been declining steadily . . . from an average of 40 words per sentence in 1710 to an average of 14 words per sentence in 2010.

Reading Grade:
In the 1700s the average reading grade of best sellers was 14.5 while the average reading grade of best sellers in 2010 was 4.5.

It’s not looking good, folks.

Those numbers are for best sellers. Typically, when reading for pleasure, people prefer reading a couple of grades below their average. You can see how newspapers and magazines lowered their reading grades to accommodate the population:

Is there any surprise that the majority of Americans get their news and information from Television and the Internet? Most of them can’t read the damn newspapers, and even if they do, they’re not likely to understand or retain what they read.

Here’s a chart illustrating that fact . . .

In 2003, only 20% of the population read at the equivalent of a 10th-grade level. If you look at the chart, you can see more Americans could read at the 10th grade level in 1949 than could read at the 6th grade level in 2003. Again, I can only assume things have gotten worse.

How can I assume that?

Notice the downward trend.

Do I care about any of this? Well, somewhat.

On the one hand, it means I have a cognitive advantage over a large percentage of the population. On the other hand, I live among people I can’t assume will understand what I say or write. On the third hand, people don’t like it when they perceive you’re smarter than they are (read THIS — it’s written at a 9th-grade reading level).

But, it’s the fourth hand that hits home (notice the correlation with the advent of the Internet) . . .

That’s not looking good for anyone wanting to make a living as an author. There’s an uptick which I think was the introduction of e-books, but they’ve leveled out and have even lost a bit of ground to audio books.

I don’t have exact numbers, but as Macris tells you in the video, each year sees 7% fewer adults reading books. Again, I don’t know if that number is adjusted for the increase in audio books.

Note: I don’t know how others feel about it, but I cannot maintain the required concentration when listening to audio books (I’m not the only one). Unlike when I’m reading a book, my mind tends to wander and I miss stuff. People tell me they listen to audio books while doing other stuff. Since I know there’s no such thing as multitasking, that doesn’t make sense to me. Then again, I can only speak for myself.

Macris stressed we should read “above our grade.” He likens it to exercise: if you want your muscles to grow and become stronger, you exercise with heavier weights. If you want to improve, read beyond your capability; push yourself.

I checked my writings and — on average — my casual posts come in at a 5th-grade reading level, my short stories come in at a 6th-grade reading level, my novels come in at an 8th-grade reading level, and my opinion pieces come in at around 9th-grade level.

. . . except for this post . . . this one comes in at not quite a 4th-grade reading level.

If people want to check their writing, here are two readability tools: HERE and HERE. There are others, some available by paid subscription.

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.


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