Is reading still fundamental? Do the deep narratives in books help us make sense of our world?


I just finished reading “Stolen Focus – Why You Can’t Pay Attention” by Johann Hari released this month. The book was very timely, as I planned to write about the Gallup article released on January 20, 2022, entitled, “Americans Reading Fewer Books Than in Past.” Allow me to excerpt Hari’s work a couple of times to get us started and hopefully spur you to get a copy of his book. The strength of his work is his boots-on-the-ground interviews with leading experts in their fields. The take-aways from the interviews alone are worth the price of the book.  

“The proportion of Americans who read books for pleasure is now at its lowest level ever recorded. The American Time Use Survey—which studies a representative sample of 26,000 Americans—found that between 2004 and 2017 the proportion of men reading for pleasure had fallen by 40 percent, while for women, it was down by 29 percent.”

“The opinion-poll company Gallup found that the proportion of Americans who never read a book in any given year tripled between 1978 and 2014.”

"This trend has escalated to the point that by 2017, the average American spent seventeen minutes a day reading books and 5.4 hours on their phone.”

“Complex literary fiction is particularly suffering. For the first time in modern history, less than half of Americans read literature for pleasure. It’s been less well studied, but there seem to be similar trends in Britain and other countries: between 2008 and 2016 the market for novels fell by 40  percent. In one single year—2011—paperback fiction sales collapsed by 26 percent.”

Below is the Gallup Poll from late last year with fresh evidence of reading's decline.

Dec. 1-16, 2021 Gallup poll
Dec. 1-16, 2021 Gallup poll
Dec. 1-16, 2021 Gallup poll

Troubling data for our literacy. The new data on book reading reinforces the decline in the popularity of reading with Americans consuming an average of three fewer books last year than 2016. Compared to the number of books read five years ago and typically read for the past three decades this year’s data marks a troubling decline. And, remember, the COVID-19 lockdown should have been a boom to quiet reading time.

According to Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jonesarticle, the decline is not because fewer Americans are not reading a single book that percentage held steady at 17%, but because Americans who read regularly are reading fewer books. The changes are especially pronounced among the most typically voracious book readers, namely, college graduates, women, and older Americans. Please remember these polls are aspirational, meaning as an individual wants to think positively about themselves, they tend to inflate their answers given to pollsters.

The basic challenge of the reduction in the reading of books is the absence of long-form narratives from our mental diets. But bigger issues lay beneath the surface of the data.

The reading room in Spain’s Senate in Madrid

Both Hari and I are fans of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the world-renown author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi noticed in his research that one of the simplest and most common forms of flow that people experience in their lives is reading a book. Like other forms of flow, reading a book is being choked off in our culture of constant distraction.

For many of us, reading a book is the deepest form of focus we experience. We dedicate many hours of our life, as we immerse ourselves in an alternative realm and allow it to capture our imagination. Books are the medium through which most of the biggest advances in human thought over the past four hundred years have traveled. And according to polling results, the experience of reading a book is now collapsing against a tsunami of distracting media.

Flow, if you recall, is when we typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity when totally immersed in a task. Our periods of flow or immersion in our art or craft feels like it transcends time. Many athletes, writers, or artists find entering the “flow state” of their processes supremely liberating.

The Palais Bourbon Library in Seine, France

In a final, more elegant measure of our attention spans Hari noted in his book, that scientists studying Twitter found that in 2013 a topic would remain in the top fifty most-discussed subjects for 17.5 hours. By 2016 that had dropped to 11.9 hours. Clear and convincing data supporting a diminished attention span. I believe to combat the collective attention spans shrinkage, a books' ability to draw us into its universe for long periods of time might be our antidote to the constant pull of our fast world.

Our collective memory and attention-spans are special areas of interest for our research team at Beyond the Hype. Please consider reading Johann Hari's "Stolen Focus". The book is worth your time and money.

Human trends are typically cyclical, not linear. Watch for the long read and/or the craving for deeper dive into hot topics to emerge from our cultural landscape.

Stay tuned. Travel safe.