Sunday, March 11, 2012

Reading Underground: The Question of Male Reading Habits and the Rise of Illiteracy

Below is an article I wrote in late 2010 which was published in The View From Here Magazine in early 2011. As someone very concerned about schooling and the decline in literacy standards I think it warrants a second outing.

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I’m on the tube. I’ve only a few stops to travel so instead of reading I observe what’s going on around me. It’s almost 20 years since I stopped commuting and little seems to have changed on the London Underground. There might be digital advertisements, new escalators and cleaner upholstery but the fetid air that brushes your face as the trains arrive and depart, the metal tracks which hum and clink with monotonous rhythm and footsteps which echo down the winding tunnels are all unchanged. As I look around me I am reminded of those lines from The Wasteland; “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.”

The tube is an unusual place. You don’t hear much conversation or laughter. Most people are absorbed in their own thoughts or reading. The woman across from me is reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m impressed. The novel, a weighty hardback of 469 pages, would take up a sizeable portion of any handbag. I look on glumly. Even though I’ve read David Mitchell’s bestseller I feel a pathetic failure with my copy of Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor, a mere 213 pages, tucked discreetly in my bag.  Maybe I should take some protein powder and do some weight training?  I look more closely at the woman and decide that I’ll skip the weight training as she may have bigger muscles but I have a lot less wrinkles. And my hair is natural. And why on earth is she wearing that hideous skirt and even more hideous shoes? Promptly, the woman looks up, slams the book together and sneezes all over me. Two days later I come down with a stinking cold.

Women are often touted as the chief buyers and readers of books and particularly fiction.  Yet on the tube, according to my commuter friends, and my long ago experiences you’ll probably see roughly the same amount of men and women reading fiction and books in general. If this is true, I have some theories why these men might be challenging popular opinion;

a) Commuting is essentially tedious so although steaming up the window with his nose and writing I wuz here is an attractive proposition for your average male -  after about 20 times it loses its appeal. Therefore, men read to pass the time.

b) Men like to look clever, especially in front of unknown (or in their minds “mysterious”) women. At home they may be content to wander around with their face glued to The Beano but in public they’d much rather been seen with Plato or Aristotle. Although, to be fair, if he’s a humorous kind of guy he’ll have a copy of Tony’s Blair’s A Journey or even Alan Titchmarsh’s Mr McGregor.

c) Men are essentially devious. (I know - I married a man who said he had a manor. Eventually, I realised he meant he had a manner.) So you see, whilst it looks like he’s reading Tom Clancy or James Patterson he’s probably got  Me and My Hard Drive or 50 Ways to Rewire Your House hidden between the pages.

d) Women, more often than not, buy their partner’s books. So it doesn’t actually follow that men are reading less, they just buy less. I know this as I purchase all my husband’s books, as well as his underpants and socks. One day, I hope we will have an intellectual conversation about a book- in the meantime he likes looking at the pictures in his Top Gear annual. To be fair, my husband did once buy me a book.  About cats. I haven’t read the captions yet – but the pictures were lovely.

Perhaps men who read on the tube are an anomaly? Do men in general really read fewer books than women? According to a survey conducted by Associated Press and IPSOS, a research firm, that assumption is correct. Their report concluded that in 2007 American women read an average of 9 books but men only 5.  Perhaps, even more worryingly, was that 27% of the respondents (a quarter of all women and a third of all men) had read nothing at all within the preceding year.

But anyone who has ever participated in a survey will know how subjective they can be, particularly when memory is called into question. Probably results based on one survey aren’t enough to draw any firm conclusions. However, interestingly, a 2007 American report by The National Endowment for the Arts entitled To Read or not to Read coordinated the results of a number of reports, studies and surveys across the US and concluded that reading and the level of reading skills is on a rapid downward curve. It also illustrated, beyond doubt, that the biggest downtrend in reading and literacy skills was amongst young adults. Indeed, nearly half of all 18-24 year olds read no books at all for pleasure and of those 15-24 who did read for pleasure it was a paltry daily average of 7-10 minutes, 60% less than the average American.

But here’s where the report gets really interesting. Whilst literacy is rising amongst small children in the US by the time they’re leaving school in the 12th grade their literacy skills are on the wane. Between 1992 and 2005 there was an overall 13% reduction in the reading proficiency of American children. In fact, the reading scores of 12th grade males showed a 13% decrease and 12th grade girls a 10% decrease and whilst the reading proficiency of American women in general remained static, overall male reading proficiency dropped a massive 19% over the period 1992-2003.

So perhaps there is more than a little truth in the theory that women read more books than men. If we accept American habits as an indicator of trends in the Western world then men are indeed reading less, and reading less well than women.

American best-selling author Jason Pinter responded to an article on the American National Radio website which had reported on both the AP/IPSOS and NEA findings. He argued that the theory that men are reading less than women is a self-fulfilling prophecy put about by a publishing industry, dominated by women, which is failing to cater to men’s reading habits. Pinter, a former editor, may well have some anecdotal evidence to support his convictions but I believe his article and indeed others that reported on both these surveys have steered away from looking at the hard facts of declining male literacy. They have concentrated on gender comparisons - because that’s what creates interest and sells papers. And whilst it may be true, to some degree, that women read more books because the publishing industry caters better for them, or because women exhibit more empathy, or even because women have more time, these are just mere surface details.  In my opinion, and which the NEA report confirms, what is really causing this dearth in male reading, is an underlying decline in literacy.

The last twenty years, have brought about huge societal changes as we connect through the World Wide Web. The ability to communicate has grown with phenomenal speed and has brought with it the power to inform, to educate, to entertain and to enrich but it has also brought with it the power to destroy. Electronic games, the internet and social networking sites can be as addictive as any drug and whilst mature people can harness and balance these developments in a positive way young adults are not always so discerning. The NEA report points out that the decline in reading literature coincides with a massive rise in internet use: between 1997 and 2003 home internet usage rose by 53% in the 18-24 age group. Moreover, the survey found that when reading occurs it is often whilst multitasking with other media. It’s now generally acknowledged that reading on the web results in less focused reading skills and shorter attention spans. Throw into the equation texting, emailing and updating their Facebook status and not only are young adults not focussing on their reading but they’re also communicating in a language, which although universal, is not so accomplished.

In a 2008 survey of men aged 18-34 conducted for Break Media, an online entertainment community for men, 69% said they “could not live without the internet” and over 50% spent over 22 hours a week online. In addition, other surveys have reported that boys above the age of 9 in the US are playing an average of 13 hours a week of video gaming – that’s the age that literacy skills start to falter according to the NEA. Those are shocking statistics and, if true, confirm the theory that over exposure to the internet is undermining literacy development.  Dr Leonard Sax in his book Boys Adrift; The Five Factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men suggests  that not only is excessive  video gaming  damaging educational performance but ultimately demotivating young men and breeding a generation of lazy, self-absorbed adults;

The destructive effects of video games are not on boys’ cognitive abilities…but on their motivation and their connectedness with the real world. These boys may be highly motivated, but their motivation has been derailed… (they) care much more about their success at Halo than about their grade in Spanish…they’ve become disconnected from the real world.”

Dr Sax’s conclusions about video gaming make interesting reading as do his conclusions about education. He suggests that in America the school state system, in particular, is failing to accommodate the needs of male pupils both physically and mentally.  As the mother of 3 boys aged 9, 12 and 18 I can see direct comparisons with state education here in the UK and the increasing underachievement of our young males. It’s my belief, and has been for many years, that young boys are floundering in our political correct schooling system which favours non-competitive sports and teaching methods and exams which inadvertently discriminate against males.

I would suggest that in the UK there are not just problems with teaching methods but, very possibly, a problem with the curriculum. The English literature syllabus is antiquated beyond belief and when new themes are introduced they have little point of reference to young males who spend their spare time playing the Xbox. My eldest son, by any measure, an intelligent, well-read and literate young man got a D for his English literature; his lowest grade at GCSE. I was, frankly, appalled. How much of it was too much time spent on his Xbox I cannot say,  but when he said “sticking me a class with a bunch of losers to study Caribbean poetry wasn’t going to work” I could at least go some way to understanding his feelings.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of studying the classics but my belief is young males need a curriculum and schooling which has more relevance to them.  Year after year we expect our children to read classics which now have little or no bearing on young lives. They are too far distant. Seriously, does anyone believe Pride and Prejudice is of any interest to your average 15 year old boy who might spend several hours gaming every night? Wouldn’t we be better of trying to inspire and educate our young men with contemporary texts?  Why must the educational foundation of GCSEs start with the past and not the present? Surely we need our young men to engage with literature if we are to halt the decline in literacy skills?

Last year The View From Here conducted an experiment in conjunction with Random House and Clarks retailers. We put 50 copies of Fighting Reuben Wolfe by Markus Zusak, a novel aimed at young adults, but which we thought would also engage older males, in Clarks in Luton. We placed an insert in the book asking readers to keep the copy and requesting feedback. Clarks reported that many men sat and read the novel and after one month 30 of the 50 copies had disappeared. But, disappointingly, no one responded to our request for feedback.

I’m inclined to think that the lack of response is not a reflection on the book, as people are often more vocal on their dislikes than their likes. However, it is curious that no one made the effort to respond. Did they take the book because it was free without any intention of finishing it? Without any answers there’s too much room for conjecture but I am now wondering whether there are simply too many distractions in life and that the appeal of other forms of entertainment is too strong. Perhaps books are simply the last in a long queue. After all, it’s probably easier for an older man to flop down in front of the telly after a hard day’s work or more exciting for a young man to enter a virtual world. Maybe those men who walked away with Fighting Reuben Wolfe only read it in the shop because it was a quiet environment where the only other activity was watching their partners parade shoes.

There are a huge amount of questions to be asked about why literacy and reading in young males is declining. Video gaming, the advent of the internet and changes in education are perhaps the most visible culprits but there is so much more to be considered; the breakdown of families and male role models, declining law and order, general wealth and the culture of entitlement, drugs…the list goes on and on.

It’s easy to make jokes about the gender divide in reading and get drawn into superficial gender based arguments. But seriously, we now need do all that we can to ensure our young men, and indeed our young women, are as best equipped as they can be for the challenges that lie ahead in this ever-changing world. What we do know is is that literacy and education go hand-in-hand with progressive and prosperous societies. They are the cornerstones of democracy. We really need to act to stop this decline in literacy standards and we need to act fast. I really don’t want the world to be a place where you’re embarrassed to be seen with a book, where reading is driven underground in favour of video games, films and obtuse text messaging.

There’s a campaign afoot in London to have Wi-Fi installed on the tube by 2012. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. I rather like that peculiarly British habit of staring into space or, quite simply, reading a newspaper or book. Maybe we need more quiet spaces like Clarks in Luton. Who knows?  All I can say is sometimes silence is golden.


  1. You are onto something here, Mrs T - well, lots of things actually. I despair of people who think literacy doesn't matter. And aren't those computer/video games addictive? Particularly for boys. (I am a complete Luddite and would throw the Wii/Xbox/Nintendo etc in the bin if I dared.)

    I don't know what the answer is but I'm jolly glad I had a good education and am reasonably literate. For me, it is a quality of life thing and not to enjoy reading and writing would be to miss so much.

  2. Yes, they're a lot of issues concerning literacy that need airing and, as you suggest Mrs B there are no easy solutions:(

    I agree - literacy is very much a quality of life issue because people who can't read and write well generally end up with lower paid jobs and unable to explore their potential. According to Dr Sax there are even young adults dropping out of university/jobs and sponging off their parents whilst they play their electronic games - which is a shocking scenario but one I can well believe. As in all things moderation is the name of the game...

    The one thing I am sure of is that raising the standards in our schools is an absolute necessity. It is almost nigh impossible to influence what happens out of school hours so every opportunity to encourage good literacy skills in school must be maximized.

    As usual, I look forward to my next clash with school:))


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