CN: discussion of ableism and classism
In the last year, I’ve seen this infographic of “surprising book facts” shared repeatedly on Facebook, primarily by intelligent people who I love and respect. Robert Brewer created the graphic in early 2012, to demonstrate his love of books and concern for the future of book reading.
However, most people who share it aren’t aware that the graphic was later debunked as containing false or misleading statistics, or that Brewer recalled the graphic and replaced it with a new more accurate graphic on literacy. Despite recalling the graphic in late 2012, it continues to pop up and the statistics are used as a shorthand for demonstrating that there is something seriously wrong with the relationship between Americans and books.
The graphic reads:
“Surprising Book Facts
- 33% of High School Graduates never read another book the rest of their lives
- 42% of college grads never read another book after college
- 57% of new books are not read to completion
- 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore the last five years
- 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year
- The more a child reads, the likelier they are able to understand the emotions of others
Reading one hour per day in your chosen field will make you an international expert in 7 years”
Here are some of the flawed arguments featured in the graphic:
Bookstores are the Only Place to Obtain Books
The digital age has been very hard on the bookstore industry, but listing the percentage of adults who have not visited a bookstore implies that if you aren’t visiting a bookstore, you must not be acquiring books. It ignores the rather obvious alternatives such as the booming business of books sold online, those given as gifts, and rather importantly, those borrowed from the library.
Bookstores are special places, and due to the switch from paper to digital, many have gone out of business or are sorely struggling. Supporting them is a noble cause. But people with mobility or transportation issues may not have a way to get to the bookstore that has the book that they want, making ordering online a preferable option. Low-income populations don’t always have money to spare on purchasing books, which is where libraries play an irreplaceable role.
Libraries provide books and other educational material to low-income populations and they are integral in exposing children to reading at a young age. If your goal is to increase the number of books getting read, support for your local bookstore should not come at the cost of decreasing the overall number of people who have access to books. Instead, Increasing funding to libraries, schools, after-school reading programs, and nonprofits that offer educational materials to low-income groups would help ensure literacy in children, and increase the likelihood that adults will have access to books once out of school.
Physical Books are Superior to Other Kinds
The statistics don’t mention whether books read on electronic devices like Kindles or audio books were included, but because it points to the number of adults who have not visited a bookstore in the last five years, and doesn’t mention any digital formats, the implication is that only physical books are being considered.
Screen readers, reading tablets, and audiobooks are all newer methods for consuming books that convey the same quality of information as paper books and yet are frequently dismissed as less valid forms of reading. Not only are these devices just as good for reading as paper books are, but they also make books accessible to people with physical and cognitive disabilities who would otherwise be unable to read them.
Societally, we tend to dismiss the increase in accessibility and the potential for improvement in the quality of life of disabled people that come with advances in technology. New devices like smartphones and tablets are characterized as time wasters devoid of value and it’s seen as a moral failing for someone to read using a Kindle instead of a physical book.
If your life view fails to consider that people with disabilities exist, the technology that serves to accommodate that disability will seem extraneous — because it is extraneous to able-bodied people. But prioritizing physical books over any other kind fails to acknowledge that supporting these technologies actually increases the number of people who have access to books and reading.
If You’re Not Reading Books, You’re Not Reading Anything
According to the graphic, books are not read or bought frequently enough. But because no other forms of media are mentioned, the implication is that book-reading is the only valuable source of reading, even though the last two statements of the graphic detail the positive benefits of reading in general, not just of books.
Many other mediums for the written word have been ignored here: Comics, screenplays, news articles, opinion articles, and even Facebook posts and twitter threads. People consuming these other types of media are doing plenty of reading as well. If just reading improves empathy in children, as the graphic claims, then reading other media forms should be just as beneficial as reading books. And yet this huge source of reading alternatives is never acknowledged in the graphic.
There’s No Good Excuse to Not Read Books
I love books. I’ve collected them since I was young, and I’ve read dense educational classics and philosophical stories for fun. I’m one of those people who must exhibit extreme self-control when walking into a bookstore. However, there have been several chunks of my life where I did not read a book for at least a year. The graphic ignores a whole host of good reasons that a person might not read books.
I’ll use myself as an example: Sometimes, I didn’t have access to them. At one point in my life, I had no money to spare to buy them, and even though I lived in a city that sports a beautiful library, my address fell in a part of town that had its own small, disappointing library that wasn’t worth the bus trip and gaining access to the city’s main library would’ve cost me $80 up front.
Sometimes my life structure didn’t allow for reading. I was so busy working or managing physical and mental health problems that I didn’t have any time left over to commit to a whole book. Other times, my life was full of other rewarding and creative activities that were not book reading, like dancing, writing, making music, and spending time with people I loved.
And most recently, I’ve had trouble cognitively processing books. When my depression resurfaced in 2016, I went from tearing through a book every couple weeks to finding myself unable to focus on more than a few paragraphs at a time.
The graphic even fails to acknowledge people who are not reading books because they cannot read either due to gaps in education or a cognitive disability, but it also dismisses people who can’t afford books, are too busy working supporting themselves to read, or are spending their time doing other equally enriching hobbies.
Not Reading Books is Bad for Obvious Reasons
No explanations are made about why the statistics listed are bad, it’s just heavily implied that this combination of facts is a Very Bad Thing. The statistics are also listed without any potential cause accompanying them, and no call to action is suggested either. The lack of specificity makes it easy for the reader to fill in their own narrative about what the problem is and what that says about society today, such as: if people today were just more focused, more dedicated, more intelligent, more cultured, less lazy, worked harder, cared more, then they would read more books and that would be a Very Good Thing.
The graphic can be interpreted positively and can be used to inspire people, but with no suggested solution, its structure encourages uninformed judgment without having to follow through on any concrete action to fix the problem. This structure also makes it a very shareable meme: You get the feeling of having accomplished something by spreading an important message about a Bad Thing without actually contributing anything towards changing it or even stating what it is that needs to be changed.
Ideas to Support Instead
The problem isn’t really this specific graphic, though, because the creator has already recalled it, and more importantly, there are many other graphics that convey a similar message.
The societal attitudes conveyed in the graphic are the problem, and the fact that those attitudes are so easy to relate to that more than four years after the graphic was recalled, it’s still getting shared regularly. As much as I love books, I recognize that attaching morality to reading books, only physical books, and only ones that you bought at a local bookstore actually decreases the number of people who are able to read them.
There are a lot of variables at play that make reading harder or easier for the general public and many causes to support that could make reading easier for a greater number of people, such as:
- Increase content accessibility for people with disabilities
- Support efforts to get reading devices to low-income folk with disabilities
- Enact a universal basic income to allow people to spend less time working, more time to consume art, and allow bookstores a greater chance at staying open regardless of their levels of profit
- Donate books to nonprofits or charities that specialize in distributing literature to low-income populations
- Increase funding for libraries, schools, and after-school reading programs
If graphics targeting book lovers focused on the causes above instead of the moralization of hard-copy books bought with your own money, they would benefit marginalized groups who are the most in need of help accessing books, and it would further the overarching goal of many who love books: get as many people reading as possible.