Turkolmez: Literature is burning out with devastating consequences

Emre Turkolmez, Op-Ed Contributor

It is becoming an unavoidable fact that people, especially teens and children, read less and less by the day. You could go to any bookstore from multi-franchise giant Barnes & Noble to indie Strand and observe the steady decrease in people’s interest in literature firsthand from the untouched stacks of books. Society should be concerned with preserving a source of entertainment that teaches life lessons, improves memory and logical thinking, and stimulates ingenuity. It is said best: “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

Concerningly, the percentage of Americans who did not read a single book within the previous year increased from 8 percent to 23 percent between the years of 1978 and 2014, according to data from Gallup and The Pew Research Center. This is the number for any kind of book, even genres such as cooking and business. This number is quite unsurprising when, these days, a common response to “I’m reading” has become “Why?” Another study considering only works of literature puts that percentage at 57 percent, according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts. Sadly, only a minority of people read Charlotte Brontë, George Orwell, J.D. Salinger or any of the other authors I could keep naming that some might not even recognize anymore.

Those who do read literature have been described by The New Yorker as “defensive,” for they mostly represent the stereotyped group of “nerds,” as society labels them, exposing them to demotivating situations like bullying and social rejection. How many people have been judged for giving a book as a gift, either in real life or on television? The list goes on and on.

It has been found that the more educated people are, the more they read. About 68 percent of people with a graduate degree have reported reading a piece of literature in the past year. This number drops to 59 percent for those with bachelor’s degrees, and it’s just 30 percent for people with only a high school education. And “since the share of American adults with a bachelor’s degree or more has nearly doubled since 1982,” according to The Washington Post, we should in theory be observing an improvement in reading habits. While people’s low rates of reading in the past had more to do with education, today, problems like social media, technology and television cause immense damage to the reading population instead. Regardless of how much more educated today’s society has become relative to the past, reading habits aren’t improving — they’re worsening.

Focusing on late adolescents and early adults, the numbers on reading habits are even more concerning. The average number of books read by late adolescents and early adults (aged 18-29) is three books fewer than the average for the entire population; thus, this age group has the lowest tendency to read. This problem is not only present in the U.S. A recent survey in Hong Kong has found that about 32 percent of the respondents did not read a single book in 2017, while the number increased to over 60 percent for people under the age of 18.

A more general statistic shows that, when it comes to how many hours people spent reading per week, Asian countries such as India, China and Russia, and European countries such as Sweden, France and Poland all spend more time than Americans do. Data also shows that America is one of the countries that reads the least overall. Maybe this is because of the highly science-oriented early education in the U.S. (Germany, which also stresses STEM curricula, is also toward the bottom of this list), or maybe it is because America is the embodiment of a society addicted to social media. Either way, observing this pitfall is distressing when one thinks about the generations to come: How will they learn the invaluable lessons and skills literature teaches us?

On a slightly more positive note, there does seem to be hope for children younger than the age of 11. A study done in Britain has found that 32 percent of 2000 children surveyed read for pleasure on a daily basis. I believe this clearly narrows down the cause of low reading rates to social media and the educational style of this country. With the immensely STEM-focused curricula in high schools and even universities, and with social media controlling our lives like never before, such numbers are nothing but sad and unsurprising. I ran across a fellow student at Northwestern last week who did not know the name “George Orwell.” Of course, for now, this is just a tragic exception, but surely 50 years ago no one expected the names William Faulkner or James Joyce to be forgotten either.

Emre Turkolmez is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.