Your Assumptions About Reading Are Wrong

We all know that no one reads books any more, right? It’s because of the internet, and twitter, and Justin Bieber, I think. The argument for this was summed up by Nicholas Carr in his article Is Google Making Us Stupid?

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

You can see it in these stats too – this is data from Gallup showing how many people answer “yes” to the question “Are you currently reading any books or novels at present?”

Reading Rates

That shows a clear decline, right? Well, no. Take a look at the dates on the bottom – for some weird reason, the run from now backwards. So this isn’t a decline in reading, it’s actually a big increase.

You can see the another take on this in data released this week by Pew. The numbers are higher than the ones from Gallup because this shows readers in the past year, not in the moment. And again, the numbers have shot up from what they were 60 years ago, when the average was around 40%:

Pew Reading Stats

We’re reading more than ever.

If you add in the amount of reading that we’re doing on the internet, the stuff that Carr blames for his drop in attention, then we’re reading LOTS more than ever.


In part, because of education. Reading rates are strongly tied to the percentage of the adult population that has some degree beyond high school. This number has climbed consistently since the middle of the 20th century.

Another part of the story is that for the first time in history, lots of kids and teenagers are voluntarily reading books. That is Harry Potter and The Hunger Games at work.

I was surprised when I first saw these stats, because even though I’m reading more than ever personally, the narrative that Carr and others are putting forward makes some sense. And we can have a discussion about whether or not the quality of books being read has gone down. It probably has, but mainly because so many more people are reading! You always get that when an activity jumps from a niche to the mainstream.

Who wouldn’t be surprised by these stats?

  • Amazon:  they’ve made a ton of money selling books of all kinds. A big percentage of the eBooks in the Pew data will have come through Amazon. Not only did they come up the Kindle, they also made Kindle for iPhone, Kindle for Android, Kindle for tablets. By making it much easier to read books anywhere, they’ve sold a whole lot of books.
  • The Strand:  the best second-hand bookstore in the world (or, at least, my favourite) had their best sales day in history this Christmas. As many stores selling physical books have gone out of business, The Strand has succeeded by innovating their business model. They provide a great in-store experience, lots of events, and lots of books that are really hard to find anywhere else.
  • Writers: one of the reasons that the number of readers has been increasing is that the number of books has gone through the roof. As the barriers to publication drop to nothing, it is easier than ever to publish a book. While this results in a lot of crap, it also means that no matter how obscure your interests, it is also easier than ever to find something to read about them.

The common thread here is that the people and firms that have been winning in the book business these days are the ones that somehow found a way to avoid the assumption that no one is reading any more. What other opportunities does this open up?

As Mark Twain said:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Avoiding false assumptions provides a big innovation opportunity. What do you know for sure that just ain’t so?

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

Tim Kastelle




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No Comments

  1. Alexandre Lima on April 11, 2014 at 11:31 am

    I think there is something else to consider here Tim. As our digital world evolved to much simpler contents, easy-to-read writing, small paragraphs, short texts and fast information, so did the books. Books had to adapt to the new way our young brains were reprogrammed (I’m 32 years old). I read 3 Lord of the Rings’ books in less than a week when I was 13 years old.

    Can you imagine a 13 years old boy doing the same thing today? I can’t. Yes, he’ll read the book, but it will take longer and sometimes with not that much engagement. And what worries me the most is that I’m no longer this teenager who could concentrate so easily, I’m becoming the fast, furious reader that wants to read all, can’t concentrate for more than half an hour and loses a lot of reflexive points in each text ’cause I’m reading while thinking about other stuff.

    Harry Potter maybe was the last popular book of this so called “transition” to the “new book”. The new book is mere easy, fast entertainment. Even technical books today are “for dummies”, “don’t make me think”… And I think this is dangerous ’cause we live in a complex world. If people is always waiting for something “easy”, they tend to simplify everything and blaming the world, other people, etc., for their problems (see young people in companies, watch how they react to problems).

  2. Dirk Wyle on April 13, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    It is good to see that the percentages of people who are reading a book (Fig. 1) and have read at least one book in the last year (Fig. 2) have risen. But it would be still more interesting to see what is the average number of books that these people are reading, especially for the various formats.

    I do have the impression that the average reader’s attention span has shortened.

    Dirk Wyle
    Bahamas West End Is Murder

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