Novel Problem: Dougherty confronts declining readership


Dougherty staff and students agree that reading books for pleasure is a trend that has declined in the past few years, but dispute whether technology or teaching style is the origin of this apathy.

Book reading in America has drastically reduced in the past 30 years. According the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who reported not reading a single book in the entire year has almost tripled from 1978 to 2014.

In this new technology-based age, in which Pew Research Center has shown that 93% of teens have computer access, researchers are wondering whether there is a connection between the rise of technology and the decline of book reading.

Junior Persis Shirazi, who has not read a book for fun since the summer of 2013, suspects there is.

“I believe a large part of this new trend [of declining readership] is technology and the overall evolution of pasttimes … Since we have a myriad of alternative entertainment options available to us, simply sitting down and reading a book seems like more of a task than a hobby.”

Dana Gioia, the National Endowment of the Arts chairman, told the Associated Press, “I think what we’re seeing is an enormous cultural shift from print media to electronic media, and the unintended consequences of that shift.”

But, a shift to electronic media may be crippling, not democratizing, the opportunity for students to read. With the birth of the e-reader and the shift to online or electronic media, content has never been more readily available. But instead of increasing readership, it seems that individuals are increasingly prioritizing other activities with their newfound efficiency. The National Endowment of the Arts conducted a survey which found that the number of young adults (aged 18-24) who read a book for pleasure within the year decreased by 7% from 1992 to 2002.

Dr. Mary Warner, San Jose State University’s English professor who specializes in young adult literature and literacy, calls this unwillingness to read “aliteracy”; it is not an issue of “people cannot read”, but rather one of “people will not read”.

Warner insists that there is “still a place for the actual, not the virtual”.

As Shirazi explains, “I know that if I am given spare time to partake in any task — confined to my bedroom — I would choose to aimlessly waste hours on the internet and social media simply because I’m not at the maturity level where I can cleverly choose a book over technology.”

Ethan Schnell, Dougherty’s Honors and AP Chemistry teacher, has a harsher outlook. “[Readership has declined] because your lovely [omitted] generation only cares about the instantaneous feedback. You can’t wait to the end of the novel to find out he killed his mother, or Godzilla came back and ate his father.”

The decline in readership, however, hardly seems generational. Schnell sheepishly admitted that the last time he read a book for pleasure was 10 years ago. In fact, he was vexed by the very question.

“Go to Barnes & Noble and pick, like, a novel out?” he asked incredulously, and, once the question was affirmed, answered, “[That] does not interest me whatsoever. I’ve never been a voracious reader. If it has to do with science [maybe] … that stuff is actually interesting.”

His suggestions are “Adam’s Curse” by Bryan Sykes and “Surviving the Extremes” by Kenneth Kamler. (“Surviving the Extremes” was published in 2005, indicating that the farthest back Schnell could have not read a book for pleasure is in fact only nine years. However, there are no known adaptations of “Godzilla”, which originated as a movie and not a book, in which Godzilla commits cannibalistic patricide.)

American Government teacher Ms. Pattison is not as pessimistic about the current generation’s reading habits, claiming, “I always hear kids talking about cool books that they’re reading for their ORB [Outside Reading Book] project.”

However, she has mixed feelings about English classes assigning mandatory novels, and is more supportive of allowing more student choice in the matter.

“I think [student choice] gets them more excited about reading … it’s hard to get kids pumped about assignments.”

Senior Pooja Vasudevan agrees. “I personally feel that at Dougherty people get discouraged because the English curriculum focuses way too much on the grade, as opposed to actually learning the book.”

English 10 teacher Dan Bowen also dislikes the current system.

“I think by purchasing many, many copies of certain books we get locked into certain books for an extended period of time … it can kind of make things feel stale … If it was a little more dynamic and fluid and … every four years we picked different books across grade levels, I think it would freshen things up. But we own 10,000 copies of “Lord of the Flies”, so …” he shrugs.

The DVHS library catalog shows that Dougherty, in fact, owns only 517 copies of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”. Still, at the MSRP for the mass-market hardcover, the school spent $5,173 on the title.

Ms. Pike, Dougherty’s librarian, explains that in her eight years of teaching English classes, she remembers having the most success in getting her students to read when she was able to assign a book she was passionate about.

She insists that teachers’ zeal for the books they teach directly influence student response to reading. Pike asserts that “teachers being able to choose books that they love really makes a difference in what students will read … if I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it, neither were my students.”

Teachers’ passion may be the reason why others have found that English classes have broadened their appreciation for reading. At the encouragement of English teachers and their classroom discussions, some students attribute their developed appetite for books to their school experiences.

“After AP Lit I can say that I definitely appreciate reading more,” senior Mustafa Fattah reflects. However, he has not completed reading a book for pleasure since finishing Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” last summer.

Pooja Vasudevan concurs, testifying that she ”was actually really excited to start Hamlet. I was looking forward to go in-depth, and analyze the characters and the story.”

Some challenge the idea that a decline exists at all, asserting that books are now available across multiple media platforms, such as e-books and audiobooks, as well as print copies. In addition, new movie adaptations of books encourage their viewers to pick up a copy of the book or read it before watching the movie.

Persis Shirazi, who claims to have never felt excited for a book release, believes she tends to become aware of books only after they gain fame, especially through movie adaptations.

Shirazi explains, “I started reading the “Harry Potter” series after the publication of the “Deathly Hallows”; I only read “The Hunger Games” months before the movie’s premiere; I even read “Twilight” after I had already watched the first two films.”

The rise of book-to-movie adaptations has amplified the books’ readerships significantly. Especially with the “Harry Potter” series, many readers only picked up the book after seeing the films, or at most in preparation to see them. Following “Potter’s” successes, series like “The Hunger Games” attempted to do the same — and succeeded.

According to “The Hunger Games” publisher Scholastic, there were 36.5 million copies of the series on March 28, 2012, just five days after the release of the movie adaptation. Compared to the 23.5 million copies in print in January 2012, the number of copies in print skyrocketed, increasing by 55% in just three months. This jump in popularity yielded such success for the series that it actually toppled “Harry Potter’s” overall book sales. At Dougherty specifically, “The Hunger Games” still remains the top most-checked-out series in the library.

While fans of “The Hunger Games” look forward to the final installment on the silver screen, book sales of the “Divergent” and “The Maze Runner” series have inflated after their movie debuts this year.

Whether one prefers nonfiction, voraciously reads the classics or only interests oneself in blockbuster franchises, there is a place inside a book for everyone. Reading isn’t dead yet.

You are reading this article, aren’t you?

All of those interviewed in this article provided their recommendations in the hope of reversing the trend.

As Fattah concludes, “The trend of declining readership is just that — a trend. The readership is sinking, but with any luck, we can toss out the jetsam and get back to the stories that really matter.”


Person Book Recommendation
Persis Shirazi The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Mr. Schnell Adam’s Curse by Bryan Sykes
Mr. Bowen A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller
Mustafa Fattah Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Ms. Pike Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Pooja Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ms. Pattison Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore