Against Hopefulness About Literature

I am looking forward to picking up a Purpose-Driven Totebag and the Five Totebags You Meet in Heaven tomorrow at Book Expo America, the annual publishing convention, held this year in New York. But before I do, I’d like to destroy some misguided optimism that appeared in this morning’s New York Times.

In “Expo Week Arrives, and Books Are Back,” Edward Wyatt claims that “there is actually plenty to celebrate.” This isn’t true.

Most egregiously, Wyatt tries to dismiss last year’s survey of reading habits by the National Endowment for the Arts, which found that fewer Americans were reading literature in 2002 than in 1992 or 1982, and that the rate of decline was accelerating. Wyatt gives the dismaying numbers (56.9% in 1982, 54% in 1992, 46.7% in 2002) and then attempts to blink them away as follows:

But those results are difficult to interpret. “Literature” was not defined, for example, and the percentage of adults who reported reading a book of any kind was nearly 57 percent, down from 61 percent 10 years earlier.

Ahem. Literature was defined by the NEA researchers. Here’s page 1 of Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America: “The 2002 SPPA [Survey of Public Participation in the Arts] asked respondents if, during the past 12 months, they had read any novels or short stories, plays, or poetry.” That seems pretty straightforward.

The second part of Wyatt’s blinking away has a “yes, we have no bananas” logic to it. In 1992 and in 2002, the NEA researchers asked whether people had read any book at all in the past year, in order to get a sense of how literary reading correlated with reading generally. As Wyatt notes, the percentage of readers and the percentage of literary readers were not far from each other, and both were declining. How come Wyatt thinks that this casts doubt on the NEA’s findings about literary reading? Why does the correlation make the NEA’s data “difficult to interpret”? It seems to me to be corroborating evidence.

Elsewhere in the article, Wyatt’s main point of celebration is that publishers’s revenues are growing. But if you read past the jump, you learn that “while sales of books have risen when measured in dollars, the total number of books sold has declined—by 3 percent over the last three years and 9 percent over the last five years.” Wyatt explains that the average price of a book has, accordingly, risen.

This is good news? Last time I checked, selling fewer items to fewer customers at higher prices was the hallmark of an industry in decline. In a “mature market,” the natural, sharkish strategy is to squeeze revenues out of the customers who, for one reason or another, are unable or unwilling to desert you. But it won’t work forever. Eventually even the most hidebound, apparently trapped customers will reach a spending ceiling and either turn elsewhere for their media needs or simply dig in their heels and (shudder) consume less than they’d like to. In an end game, it’s to be expected that Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio should try out on Wyatt the suggestion that “publishers . . . consider raising prices.” But in doing so, Riggio reveals that he sees no future for the book industry other than what is politely known in business jargon as “profit taking.” He is saying that in his judgment, it’s in the economic interest of the publishing industry to reduce the number of books sold even further. He is saying that even with a 9 percent decline over the past five years, the number of books sold is not shrinking fast enough. Keep in mind that the U.S. population has been steadily growing. Books will soon be a minority taste. (Substitute “elite” for “minority” at your peril.)

A few stray bits of apparent hope remain to be quashed, and then I’m done. It is not a promising sign that Americans still spend more on books than on other media. A century or so ago, Americans spent nearly all their entertainment dollars on the printed word; that they still spend a fair portion of their dollars on it is a legacy statistic, not a redeeming trend. And anyway, it’s not clear that they do spend more on books than on other media. There’s a question here of what’s appropriate to compare. Books are their own hardware; should spending on them be set next to spending on mere DVDs, say, or to spending on DVDs and the equipment to play them on? If you choose to make the latter comparison, books are not holding their ground. Here’s page 27 of Reading at Risk:

Between 1985 and 2000, annual consumer spending on television, radios, and sound equipment increased by 68 percent, from $371 per household in 1985 to $622 in 2000. In comparison, annual spending on reading increased by only 4 percent, from $141 per household in 1985 to $146 in 2000.

Last, audio books. Wyatt thankfully doesn’t mention them, but let’s get them out of the way. They’re epiphenomenal. The numbers may be growing, and they’ll probably continue to grow until MP3 players have finished their saturation of the market, but they’re nonetheless too small to matter. The phenomenon is wonderful for commuters, sure, but it’s not going to reverse the decline in publishing, and by its very nature it’s not going to add readers to the population.

American culture is shifting away from reading, and there’s a resistance to acknowledging this and to thinking through the implications of it.