Americans don’t read? Puh-leeze

John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics’ Circle, writes a screed complaining that Americans don’t read and it’s all Ronald Reagan’s fault. Land of the Book-Free: America’s obsession with making money is turning reading into a minority interest in the US.

Last week I spent 22 hours in Las Vegas. It’s amazing what blossoms in the desert when irrigated by cash: acres of smooth asphalt; a replica of Manhattan with a roller coaster threading through it. Good luck finding a book, though.

The experience apparently overwhelmed him.

Of course, the point of Vegas is not to read, but there is something spooky about a town without books, let alone newspapers. Just before we left town, my friend and I stumbled upon a couple quietly reading The Wall Street Journal. “Where did you get that?” we gasped.

Ahh, what an opportunity for a Friday snark. Always a great way to start the weekend. I’m concerned about education, and want people to read lots of books, but this article is simply ridiculous.

Problem one with Freeman’s premise: if you’re going to set up a strawman, pick one that’s not pathetically easy to mock. “I went to Barnum’s Clown College last week. And amid all the red noses and giant shoes, could I find a single Oxford English Dictionary?” Or “Yesterday I drove across Kansas. But when I stumbled off the highway into those vast fields of wheat, I found not one copy of Kerouac’s On the Road. America is a wasteland.”

Problem two: he misinterprets the survey upon which his entire article is premised. He states, “[A] study has put a figure on the decline of reading in the US. One in four Americans read no books last year. Nothing. Not even the Bible.” But the study he cites does not mention a decline in reading. It doesn’t compare present reading rates with past rates at all. That’s just Freeman’s anxiety speaking. The study shows that 75% of Americans read books for pleasure. But to him that’s a “minority”. So maybe it’s not his anxiety speaking – maybe he’s just innumerate.

He blames the “Republican revolution” for its “full-scale assault on public welfare programming.” I’m not a Republican, but… yawn. He also blames capitalism and the Internet for the decline in book review pages in newspapers. And wonders when “we” will find the guts to do something drastic.

Now that cigarettes are becoming less and less palatable in an actor’s hand, put a book there. If the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] wants people to read, strong-arm a copy of William Carlos Williams’ The Doctor Stories onto Grey’s Anatomy.

Well, I want people to read. I want people to read my books. In fact, I insist the nation read my entire ouvre. Why don’t I seize power and strong-arm the producers of 24 into placing copies of Jericho Point on all the desks at CTU? What’s that, you say? Cultural imperialism? No, couldn’t possibly be. As Freeman concludes,

This may sound crass and ridiculous, but so is America.

See, we’re surrounded by philistines! Something must be done. Our tastes shall be imposed. Our jobs preserved. The command economy instituted…

I guess I’m just shocked to see a self-appointed shepherd of high culture regard his fellow citizens with quite such open contempt.

Final problem with Freeman’s book-free Las Vegas story? I Googled “bookstores las vegas” and in 45 seconds found the Yellow Pages listings for 110 bookstores in the Vegas metropolitan area.

14 responses to “Americans don’t read? Puh-leeze

  1. I lived in ‘Vegas for four and a half years and my favorite place to go was not the casino floors but my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. It may be difficult to find novels on The Strip – after all, you’re generally not there to plop down with a good book – but there are plenty of newspapers, and certainly many bookstores and newstands off-Strip, not to mention many well-read residents. I now have this image in my head of this Freeman guy attempting to place copies of War & Peace beside every slot machine in an effort to do “something drastic” :>

    Btw, I am working on reading all of your books 🙂

  2. I really hate that more-literate-than-thou attitude. And, I believe that Americans are not illiterate but aliterate. They can read but choose not to read. Maybe, when some smart guy figures a way to introduce advertising into books or maybe product placement, then books will be promoted like movies and more of us will read. In the meantime, I just keep promoting Meg’s books to all and sundry.

  3. The electronic media has reduced our attention spans to…wait…what was I writing?

    Make books 10 pages or less and we’ll read more.

    Personally, I want more pictures.

  4. Thanks, Mimi. Come the revolution, you’ll be at the head of my shock troops, passing out copies of Kill Chain to the masses. With a complimentary vodka tonic, perhaps.

    Tinyman, my riposte to the apparent demise of the American attention span is twofold: (1) presidential debates – in 2007! and (2) The entire nation watched the entire OJ Simpson trial.

  5. And Michelle*… go on, put War and Peace by every slot machine; my mother-in-law will be delighted to use her copy as a footrest. (She’s more a true crime kind of gal.)

  6. Hey, I didn’t watch the OJ Simpson trial! 🙂 I think this sort of thing stems from job security fear. If only a percentage of Americans readers will notice your book, and only a percentage of them will buy it, if you start pondering the decline of reading by Americans, one can easily feel their livelihood threatened.

    (Good God, can you follow that sentence?)

    I grew up in a world where pianists are no longer needed in ballet studios, and pianists are replaced by DJs at events. Art Song is nearly dead, and orchestras are folding, everywhere.

    I’d rather see people fear and act to prevent such a state in the book world, than not worry and let it happen. Still, he’s gone a bit TOO far, LOL. That will get him ignored, not help prevent the problem he fears!

  7. Let me get this straight. The guy whose blog is called Land of the Book-Free laments no books on the Las Vegas Strip. Well, darn right, that does represent America, after all! If they don’t read on the Strip, heaven tell us WHERE ELSE might they read? Get on any bus in a U.S. city, or walk through any park. One quick look will put the lie to Freeman’s rant.


    I especially love this: “I think some of the campaign to get people reading again in America should involve making books visible.”

    No wonder I need my glasses when I go to open a book. Think how much easier it would be if books were VISIBLE!!!! I wouldn’t have to guess at the words that fill the transparent, shimmery pages.

  8. I thought Freeman was pretty silly as well. And I don’t know about the survey he quoted (or misquoted), but check out the NEA survey of two years ago that does document some fairly depressing declines in readership:

  9. interesting blog.

  10. Hmmm. I would say that I read up to 15 newspapers online everyday and usually part of two different books. I also have textbooks for my grad school classes. I hate to say that I wonder how much the younger crowd reads these days.

  11. Evening Meg,

    Great post! I took King’s advice and tried Jericho Point and now I’m working through your other works. Very fine plotting, and Delaney is a joy to spend time with.

    In response to a lot of the comments here, I think the current crop of young people coming through my classes is pretty well read (I teach at a community college in Florida).

    They love Orson Scott Card, Ray Carver, Joyce Carol Oates-you’d be surprised by what these guys are looking at.

    Freeman’s pissing in the pool and I think he’s wrong, but these nihilistic views do offer us a measuring stick for the discussion of literacy in America. At least there’s that.

    Nice blog!

  12. Thanks for the additional evidence, guys!

  13. Pingback: Blame the Gipper | Push the Key

  14. Pingback: Statistics « Write, Wrote, Written

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