The Art of Reading in the Age of the Feed

The number of adults who read at least one novel, short story, poem, or play in the last year fell from 57% in 1982 to 43% in 2015. Should we be alarmed?

By Xische Editorial, March 21, 2019

Source: Viktoriia Dogdu/ Shutterstock

Source: Viktoriia Dogdu/Shutterstock

There is nothing like curling up with a good book on a lazy Saturday afternoon, right? Well, it might not be so appealing these days. According to research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States, leisure time reading is on the decline. From 2004 to 2018, the percentage of Americans age 15 and older who read for pleasure on any given day has declined by nearly 10%. The research shows that the declines are higher among men, with the largest age demographic affected being 35-44 year olds.

The slow death of reading is nothing new. With the rise in smartphones and the medium of reading shifting from paper to digital formats, analysts have warned for years that our ability to  embrace reading for pleasure is at risk. Indeed, research from the National Endowment for the Arts in the US confirms that the number of adults who have read at least one novel, short story, poem, or play in the prior year has fallen from 57% in 1982 to 43% in 2015. That is a big jump and it looks to be going in the wrong direction.

The reality is that we are consumed with a flood of digital text from the moment we wake up in the morning. For many of us, the first thing we do after opening our eyes is reach for our smartphones. Then we scroll through missed emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook mentions, and Instagram comments. This pattern continues throughout the day. Yet, the role that these screens have in our reading lives is a double-edged sword. Numerous studies have shown that screens cause more fatigue for readers than traditional paper sources.

The problem is not the act of reading, rather it is how and what we read. To be sure, literary reading has never been an easy endeavour. Regardless of the medium, finding the focus to get lost in a novel takes patience and openness. Our digitally infused lives thrive on devices that remove patience from our daily calculus. Living in a world of constant notifications is transforming how we expect to receive information and consume the written word. Put simply, we are afraid of downtime because we are always connected. When reading novels and other long forms of writing, a person must be able to disconnect to focus.

The transformation of reading is especially important for younger generations that are raised with smartphones. While older generations might struggle to find a balance between the constant stream of digital information and other forms of reading, the risk is that younger generations will only know the digital environment. But all is not lost.

Xische is a proud contributor to the  Arab Reading Challenge  and the Year of Reading.

Xische is a proud contributor to the Arab Reading Challenge and the Year of Reading.

Building on the enthusiasm of young people to embrace the written word, we can create ways to balance their reading habits to create positive patterns for the rest of their lives. In this regard, the UAE has already put into place the right foundation for a new reading campaign. Led by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai, the UAE has championed the Arab Reading Challenge, which is designed to get children reading across the Middle East. Other reading initiatives by Sheikh Mohammed include the 2016 Year of Reading and Month of Reading.

These initiatives have been remarkably successful in planting the lifelong love of reading in the region's young people. The next step is to recognise the tension between traditional forms of reading and digital trends. Reading novels and other forms of literary work for pleasure teaches empathy above all else. As such, reading is remarkably important for any healthy community, as it has been for centuries. We cannot risk losing sight of the central role reading plays in society.  

Therefore, the next reading challenge could focus on how to have a healthy relationship with our devices when it comes to reading. We need to teach the next generation that smartphones have an incredibly important place in society but too much of a good thing can be dangerous.

Making time to read paper books and instilling a love for the traditional written word is also a priority because it further entrenches a love of reading.  These initiatives do not have to focus solely on this region. The entire world is facing a collective decline in leisure time reading. A model for a successful reading challenge in the Middle East could then be exported to other regions. The language of social media and the internet has become universal. So too can a love for reading and appreciation for its place in society.