Bad idea: Writing off reading

Contrary to the expectations of some, the internet has boosted the written word

"The fact is that people don't read any more," sniffed Apple's Steve Jobs to the New York Times back in 2008, dismissing the newly released Amazon Kindle in one damning phrase. But oh, how quickly things move on in the world of technology.

Now, Apple's own e-book reader is rumoured to be on its way, and arriving soon. And a study produced by the University of California, San Diego reports that the number of words the average American reads, a figure in decline for so long, trebled between 1980 and 2008.

The study looks at US consumption of various media, ranging from newspapers and television to computer games and smartphones. In total, the study's authors, Roger E Bohn and James E Short, found that Americans spend almost 12 hours a day consuming the equivalent of 100,500 words a day by these methods. Print media, which at the start of the 1980s accounted for 12 per cent of the information Americans consumed, now account for just 9 per cent. But another medium has swung the measure back in favour in the written word.

The turnaround is due, as you might have guessed, to the internet. Despite the popularity of YouTube, podcasts, computer games and online TV - and at odds with the common and firmly held belief that the internet is used mostly for looking at porn - the San Diego report finds that the alphabet is still the preferred way to share information online. The US devotes just over three-quarters of its time online to text; the internet accounts for "a full third" of words consumed.

What kind of information those words are conveying is another matter, however. Bohn and Short find that nearly 35 per cent of internet activity is emailing (whereas in 1980, they snigger, "fax was the hot new way to send messages"). A further 30 per cent is spent browsing, an activity that usually involves spending less than ten seconds on any given web page. The picture which emerges is less about world literature finding exciting new methods of transmission, and more about ways to tell as many people as possible, in as few words as you can, how nice the Twix you just finished was.

But all is not lost. A report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the number of Americans who had read at least one "literary book" in the previous year had increased for the first time in a quarter-century: from 46.7 per cent in 2002 to 50.2 per cent. These figures might not suggest an emergent nation of Clive Jameses, but they do indicate that reading and writing aren't at death's door just yet. As Bohn and Short point out in another of their humorous asides, video never did "kill the radio star". The written word is changing, but it's probably safe.


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This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously