Way back in July of 2016, when the world made slightly more sense, presidential nominee Donald Trump made a confession. In no uncertain terms, the man poised to take office revealed that he had never read a biography of another president. In fact, he hadn't read many books of any kind. "I never have. I'm always busy doing a lot. Now I'm more busy, I guess, than ever before." As divisive as the man is, his lack of zeal for literature isn't quite as remarkable as you'd expect. In truth, a decline in the rates of reading for pleasure, amongst children and adults alike, has been falling for decades.
What this means for western society is unclear; certainly, we don't appear to be getting significantly less intelligent. Beginning in the 1980s, American political scientist James Flynn, noticed and analysed IQ test scores since the 1920s. They exhibited a consistent increase year upon year. This became known as the "Flynn effect". The University of Aberdeen confirmed these findings in 2014; our abstract reasoning has improved significantly, alongside an average 3 point increase in IQ test scores per decade. However, on a more literal note, a decline in reading for leisure is certainly happening and surely significant in the way culture now envisages the process of personal enrichment in the modern day.
According to the NEA (National Endowment of the Arts), which Trump incidentally intends to cut funding for, American adults regularly reading literature fell from 47% in 2012, to 43.1% in 2015. In 1982, it was reported at 57%. In the UK, figures are similar. The Reading Agency found 36% of UK adults admitted to not reading for pleasure, rising to 44% amongst 16-24 year-olds, in 2014. Much of the information collected focusses on children. Evidently, the habit of reading for fun is instilled at younger age, by parents or otherwise. Scholastic conducted a 2015 survey, finding parents reading to their children fell from 54% to just 17% from the ages 5-11. 40% of those aged 6-11 said they would have liked their parents to continue reading aloud with them. They concluded; "Our research shows that providing encouragement and time both in school and at home for children of all ages to enjoy books they choose to read will help them discover the power and joy of reading."
Considering the technological impact of e-books is clearly important. Besides the convenience of e-readers, the act of reading in this manner provides very few benefits. A Guardian survey in Norway found that memory retention of the narrative were higher in those reading from ordinary books. Stavanger University's Anne Mangen defined the findings as such, "You have the tactile sense of progress ... Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader's sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story." Combined with this, the act of reading from illuminated screens (particularly at night) has been proven to prohibit the production of melatonin, vital for the body's preparation for sleep. While e-readers clearly offer logistical efficiency, their psychological and physiological advantages fall short of traditional reading.
These findings offer a small insight into larger issues in society. From a personal standpoint, the reading of certain books at certain times in my life has shaped and inspired me. I am indebted to those texts that provided sanctuary, escape and ideas to me. This should not fall into some form of elitist issue; it is by no means a case of the educated criticising the un-educated. It is a message of encouragement to all. The Reading Agency noted that reading for pleasure correlates with fewer symptoms of depression. There is evidence for reading reducing the risk of developing dementia in later life. Perhaps most pertinent of all, research also indicated that reading fiction can be directly associated with greater empathy and improved personal relationships.
Statistics only say so much, in reality. The act of reading can be, and often is, a transformative one. The ideas of the greatest novels were the stimuli and inspirations for some of the greatest minds our world has seen. The experience of reading great books cannot be adequately translated by a single person's words. Like many things, the motivation to do so has to come from within. Somewhat appropriately, the words of Oscar Wilde ring true alongside this issue; "It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it." Allegedly, the little reading Donald Trump does do is reserved for those articles written about himself, and only himself. Wilde's words have never felt more relevant.