Reading habits change in new on-line revolution

07.25.97

Habits Change, but books and newspapers remain

M. Ray Perryman

Summary

Educators and publishers are shaking in their boots. Are folks changing their reading habits? Will today's books and newspapers go the way of the stone tablet? The answer to the first question is an unequivocal yes -- and to the second, a confident no.

Myriad surveys, reports, panels, forecasts and studies are being commissioned to sort out and predict the trends in America's reading habits. The most reliable of them conclude that while the practices and formats of reading are changing dramatically, the quest for information via the written word is not only surviving, it is thriving.

To be sure, the "delivery mechanism" has changed. We now have online information, CD-ROM capabilities, searchable databases, interactive resources, multimedia books, chat rooms and virtual reality adventures. But the medium of reading has always undergone evolution.

Just as the advent of Gutenberg's printing press did not signal the doom of handwritten messages, so computers and videos have not wiped out reading and writing. In much the same way that movable type encouraged the spread of literacy, word processing has become routine for many (including chief executive officers and kindergartners) who once wrote little or not at all.

Even with scads of multimedia options, books remain the number one source for folks seeking new information. The best example comes from electronic media itself. From 1991 to 1995, sales of books on teaching computer-related or Internet skills soared -- from 9 million (1.1 percent of the market) to 22 million (2.2 percent).

So who is reading? Serious readers (20 or more books a year) tend to be college grads with income levels over $100,000.

Westerners are book aficionados. Women read more than men. The 35-to-49 year old group reads the most, but folks 45 to 54 buy more books.

Those 65 and older (about 17 percent of the book market) may be the ones with the most time and disposable income for books. I suspect the "graying of America" bodes well for the book market's future. Bookstores are growing and evolving along with other retail market outlets.

Younger Americans, who buy only about 4 percent of books sold, have crafted their own environment for print media -- non-traditional, of course.

Kids, teenagers and young adults spend hours (and hours) on the Internet writing and reading (which should be of some comfort to English teachers).

Bored with old-fashioned e-mail messages, kids prefer "synchronous chat." Through MUDs (multi-user domains), young folks have transformed the solitary activity of reading into a highly social medium.

The concern over Americans reading fewer books, however, is not wholly unfounded. American Demographics magazine analyzes numerous studies and reports; they reveal clear shifts in patterns of reading, especially among young adults.

Americans do not report they are reading fewer books. In fact, one poll shows those who did not read a single book in a year doubled from 1975 to 1990 (8 percent to 16 percent).

Nevertheless, the inference that reading has become less central to Americans' daily lives is false. Traditional reading is on the wane, but as for communication with words, we're more engaged than ever before.

The issue has become one of choosing your mode of expression. Take my lifestyle, for instance. Those uninterrupted hours I spent devouring books in graduate school added immeasurably to my knowledge and perspective.

But where will I find time (or make time) for such an indulgence now? Today's business folks and homemakers can scarcely read the mail.

Frenetic lifestyles aside, my love of traditional books that give imagination free reign remains unaltered. I remain a voracious reader, though moderately more disciplined than in my youth.

At heart, I will forever agree with a former president of Harvard who said, "Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers."

Nevertheless, I am excited and exhilarated by today's electronic exchanges. The medium has changed, but the skill of reading is alive and well.

Writing is still essential, even if the style is mutating to "Internet casual." Format aside, communication remains essential to getting your message across, and words are still the core components of the message.

The next generations are as hungry for knowledge as any we've seen -- and, with the spread of electronic media -- will likely be as literate as any other.

Dr. M. Ray Perryman is president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group and economist-in-residence at the Edwin L. Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.

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