Are we clos­ing the book on read­ing?

In 2016, 394,000 New Zealand adults did not read a book. Jack van Bey­nen dives into our read­ing cul­ture to find out what’s re­ally go­ing on.

The Press - - Front Page -

There’s a rea­son schools en­cour­age pupils to read. Read­ing for plea­sure has a range of proven ben­e­fits, which es­sen­tially boil down to mak­ing you smarter.

So if 394,000 New Zealan­ders didn’t read a book in 2016 - as a sur­vey by the Book Coun­cil has dis­cov­ered – what are they miss­ing out on?

In 2002, OECD re­search re­ported that en­joy­ing read­ing has more im­pact on chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tional suc­cess than their fam­ily’s so­cio-eco­nomic sta­tus.

A study by the New Zealand Coun­cil for Ed­u­ca­tional Re­search found chil­dren who en­joyed read­ing not only did bet­ter on aca­demic tests, but also were more likely to form pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships with their peers and fam­ily mem­bers.

The Book Coun­cil’s sur­vey found those who didn’t read a book in 2016 were likely to be earn­ing less money and to not have com­pleted NCEA Level Three, or an equiv­a­lent.

Dr Tom Ni­chol­son, pro­fes­sor of Lit­er­acy Ed­u­ca­tion at Massey Univer­sity, says peo­ple who read for plea­sure get bet­ter aca­demic re­sults.

Ni­chol­son says read­ing is good for our brains be­cause it ex­poses us to a wider vo­cab­u­lary, and in­creases our gen­eral knowl­edge.

‘‘Cog­ni­tion is ... about the in­for­ma­tion that we store in our mind, and that in­for­ma­tion is stored in terms of gen­eral knowl­edge and vo­cab­u­lary, and read­ing builds up both those things, so it is good for cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment. All the cor­re­la­tions show that.’’

An ex­ten­sive vo­cab­u­lary and good gen­eral knowl­edge make learn­ing eas­ier, Ni­chol­son says. It’s no won­der readers make bet­ter aca­demics.

But are our kids’ read­ing stan­dards slip­ping?

By Year 8, one in five New Zealand stu­dents do not meet the na­tional stan­dards for read­ing, and nearly a third don’t meet the writ­ing stan­dards.

‘‘If you’re not meet­ing those stan­dards you haven’t got the skill base, and if you haven’t got the skill base then it’s highly un­likely that you’re go­ing to be at­tracted to read­ing,’’ Ni­chol­son says.

Ni­chol­son thinks New Zealan­ders have lost their read­ing habit - and now we’re pay­ing the price.

‘‘We’ve paid a price in cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment and aca­demic per­for­mance by los­ing that strong habit. And also I think we’re not teach our kids to read and write as well as we used to, and we’re pay­ing the price for that too,’’ he says.

NZ Book Coun­cil chief ex­ec­u­tive Jo Cribb says one of the best ways to get kids read­ing is for them to see the adults around them en­joy­ing a good book.

The Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion’s Sur­vey of Adult skills found hav­ing more than 200 books at home when peo­ple were 16 years old was closely linked to higher lit­er­acy, nu­mer­acy and prob­lem­solv­ing skills.

For chil­dren, see­ing their par­ents read made them more likely to pick up books them­selves, and reap the cor­re­spond­ing aca­demic ben­e­fits.

‘‘When we’re read­ing in front of our kids we’re set­ting the next gen­er­a­tion up for suc­cess, and some­times I think we for­get about that,’’ Cribb says.

Books fac­ing stiff com­pe­ti­tion for our in­ter­est

So why aren’t we read­ing?

When the Book Coun­cil asked non-readers why they hadn’t read a book, the most pop­u­lar rea­son, at 31 per cent, was a lack of time.

A fur­ther 24 per cent said they just didn’t like read­ing, while an­other 16 per cent said it was eas­ier just watch­ing movies based on the books.

To Dr Miska Kavka, a lec­turer in film and tele­vi­sion at the Univer­sity of Auck­land, those statis­tics in­di­cate that the book is be­ing ousted from its place in our cul­ture by se­duc­tive new forms of en­ter­tain­ment.

‘‘We’re in a pe­riod where ev­ery­thing is mov­ing rapidly to­wards an im­age- and sound­based cul­ture, and away from the printed word,’’ she says.

In the mid-2000s, Kavka says, a rush of au­dio and vis­ual en­ter­tain­ment ma­te­rial be­came avail­able on­line. Since then, the vol­ume of en­ter­tain­ment ma­te­rial avail­able on the in­ter­net has in­creased ex­po­nen­tially.

Leisure time which 20 years ago we might have spent read­ing is in­stead spent watch­ing YouTube or Net­flix, scrolling through so­cial me­dia, or read­ing im­age-stud­ded on­line ar­ti­cles.

‘‘Even when we’re con­sum­ing words, we want im­ages, we want graph­ics with it,’’ Kavka says.

‘‘And so the writ­ten word alone is, I think, los­ing - it’s not los­ing its ap­peal, but it’s los­ing its cul­tural im­port.

‘‘That sense that what you need to know should come from read­ing, I think we’re prob­a­bly re­ally be­gin­ning to move away from that.’’

But just be­cause that on­line con­tent is there doesn’t mean we have to con­sume it. Why do we pre­fer this stuff over books?

The sim­ple an­swer is, our brains are lazy. Kavka says im­ages are more closely lined up with the way we per­ceive the world, so they take less men­tal ef­fort to un­der­stand.

‘‘In a sense, read­ing is kind of a higher de­gree of cog­ni­tive work, you have to read the words, you have to sort of do the work of in­ter­pret­ing them.’’

An­other rea­son for read­ing’s de­cline might be that the novel is no longer the only place we go to tell mean­ing­ful sto­ries.

The past 15 years have seen the rise of qual­ity, long-form tele­vi­sion. Some of th­ese shows are based on books - Game of Thrones and The Hand­maid’s Tale are two re­cent ex­am­ples.

But oth­ers - Break­ing Bad and Mad Men, for ex­am­ple - are the kinds of sto­ries that in the past might have re­quired nov­els to do them jus­tice.

Even their struc­ture mim­ics that of a novel, with each episode form­ing a chap­ter in the story.

‘‘Tele­vi­sion is a re­ally nice ex­am­ple of the way the novel has moved on­line, or onto the TV set or what­ever plat­form we’re watch­ing it on,’’ Kavka says.

‘‘We’re mov­ing to­wards TV for the same kind of story-based nar­ra­tive en­ter­tain­ment that we used to get from novel read­ing.’’

How we get books

In 2015, book­store chain Whit­coulls closed its flag­ship store in Auck­land’s Queen St.

The clo­sure could have been read as a sign of the book­store’s de­cline. Book­sellers NZ CEO Lin­coln Gould says sales of books in New Zealand de­clined from 2009, when he en­tered the in­dus­try, to 2015.

‘‘We lost a num­ber of book­shops and pub­lish­ers, in­ter­na­tional pub­lish­ers par­tic­u­larly, be­gan to with­draw out of New Zealand with their dis­tri­bu­tion units back to Australia,’’ he says.

In Septem­ber 2015, book sales abruptly turned around, partly be­cause of a surge in the pop­u­lar­ity of adult colour­ing-in books.

So it’s not all bad news. The sale of chil­dren’s books, Gould says, is ex­pand­ing ‘‘quite rapidly’’. New Zealand’s book sales per capita fig­ures show we’re still a na­tion of good readers.

But the 394,000 non-readers are a ‘‘chal­lenge’’, Gould says - and he thinks book­stores have a part to play in get­ting that num­ber down.

‘‘With that num­ber, ob­vi­ously it’s very dis­ap­point­ing, but it rep­re­sents a chal­lenge for ev­ery­body in­volved. For li­braries, for pub­lish­ers, for all those that de­velop read­ing pro­grammes for ev­ery­thing from pris­ons to schools and so on.’’

The Book Coun­cil’s sur­vey shows book­stores are the most pop­u­lar place Ki­wis ac­quire read­ing ma­te­rial. Af­ter book­stores come pub­lic li­braries, which tend to be fre­quented by high-vol­ume readers.

But fig­ures show that, in Auck­land at least, li­brary us­age is on the de­cline.

Four hun­dred and eighty thou­sand peo­ple across Auck­land used their li­brary card at least once in the 2016/2017 fi­nan­cial year - an in­crease of 20,000 from 2015/2016, but a drop of 10,000 from 2012/2013.

Li­brary visi­tors have dropped from 13,300,000 in 2012/2013 to 11,800,000 in 2016/2017.

Cather­ine Leonard, Auck­land Li­braries’ head of con­tent and ac­cess, says li­braries have an im­por­tant part to play in en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to read.

‘‘We def­i­nitely see that as part of our re­mit, we want our peo­ple to be lit­er­ate. You can’t re­ally be a fully func­tion­ing ci­ti­zen if you’re not lit­er­ate,’’ she says.

On the bright side

If all th­ese statis­tics offer a bleak im­age of our lit­er­ary land­scape, it’s not the whole pic­ture.

The Book Coun­cil’s sur­vey found plenty that’s pos­i­tive about New Zealan­ders’ re­la­tion­ships with books.

Cribb says that the sur­vey af­firmed ‘‘how much New Zealan­ders value the book’’.

Ki­wis who did read, read a lot, with the av­er­age reader start­ing 20 books in 2016. Com­pared to many other coun­tries, we are still a book­ish na­tion.

Cribb says there is hope for the fu­ture in the fact the peo­ple most likely to have read a book are those aged 18 to 24, with 45- to 54-year-olds the least likely.

An­other pos­i­tive take­away was the amount of New Zealand writ­ing be­ing read.

Just over half (52 per cent) of those sur­veyed read a book by a New Zealand au­thor in 2016. Cribb ex­pects that num­ber would have been sig­nif­i­cantly lower in years past, when there wasn’t the same vol­ume of Kiwi fic­tion, non-fic­tion and po­etry avail­able. ‘‘We are read­ing and en­joy­ing our own sto­ries more,’’ she said.

Gould wel­comes the news that New Zealan­ders were read­ing more Kiwi lit­er­a­ture.

‘‘In my view, [that’s] strength­en­ing New Zealand cul­ture. In other words, peo­ple are read­ing about their own en­vi­ron­ments in all sorts of ways,’’ he said.

Gould says that although in­ter­na­tional pub­lish­ers are pulling their New Zealand dis­tri­bu­tion units back to Australia, that does not mean they are go­ing to stop pub­lish­ing Kiwi fic­tion.

Smaller lo­cal pub­lish­ers, such as Nel­son’s Pot­ton & Bur­ton and Up­start in Auck­land, are step­ping into the vac­uum left by the over­seas gi­ants.

Gould also be­lieves book­stores are play­ing a com­mu­nity role, like churches or pubs, as a place for peo­ple to gather and so­cialise.

And as for those non-readers? At least now they have a fig­ure, some­thing can be done about it. ‘‘It is a dis­turb­ing num­ber, but now we know it,’’ he said.

‘‘In terms of pick­ing up that chal­lenge, there will be a lot of across the in­dus­try dis­cus­sion and action, I’m sure, to pick up that chal­lenge.’’

"We've paid a price in cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment and aca­demic per­for­mance by los­ing that strong habit [of read­ing]." Dr Tom Ni­chol­son

A Book Coun­cil sur­vey has found 394,000 Ki­wis did not read a book in 2017. Li­brary use is de­clin­ing, and book­stores are clos­ing. Are we giv­ing up on the writ­ten word?

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