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.
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