Ana Veciana-Suarez: Reading habits (and media) are a’changing

OK, so I am biased. I’m partial to the rhythm and melody of language, to the thrill of a well-turned phrase, to the surprise ending — didn’t see that coming! — of a superbly plotted story.

Surely that must be why it’s so difficult for me to understand how others prefer to stare at a screen instead of a page. (Unless, of course, that screen is displaying sentences.) For the umpteenth time in I don’t know how many years, a national study reminds us that people like me, avid — some might even say obsessive — readers, are growing rarer by the mouse click.

A recent study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American spends only 19 minutes a day reading.

Nineteen. That’s embarrassing.

Young people read even less. Americans 25 to 34 years old spend about eight minutes a day on weekends and holidays reading, even less than those ages 20 to 24, who devote 10 minutes. And teenagers? Our plugged-in, thumb-centric youth read only four minutes on their days off. If not for school, many of our children might never encounter a book or magazine.

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Americans over 75, on the other hand. spend more than an hour a day reading on weekends and holidays, thankfully nudging up the national average. That means the written word, printed on paper, has become the purview of the old.

Unfortunately, the BLS figures confirm every other reading study of the past two decades. Just last month, the nonprofit group Common Sense Media revealed that there has been a drop in reading for fun among all kids, most dramatically among adolescents, and, not coincidentally, at a time when there’s been “a stubborn lack of improvement in reading scores among teens.” Both studies blame technology.

It breaks my heart. Not the technology part. I love my smartphone and my apps. And I’m addicted to The Good Wife on CBS and Sherlock Holmes on Netflix. But nothing equals the quiet, solitary pleasure of reading. Much of what I know about the world, about different people and exotic cultures, I’ve learned through that combination of magic and craft that is good writing and deep thinking.

Few seem to know or appreciate this, though. Take a good look around your doctor’s waiting room. How many patients are playing with their phones or staring blankly at the flat-screen TV on the wall? More, I’ll bet, than are engrossed in a magazine or a book.

This scene is repeated again and again in airports, commuter trains, buses — all those bustling places where a good read once provided comfort and harbor.

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But hey, look at how we’ve designed our homes. Who has libraries anymore? And reading nooks, why, they’re positively Victorian! Though there are magazines and coffee books on my accent tables, both our family and living rooms are dominated by mammoth television sets. I read in my office or bedroom. Like the madwoman in the attic, my beloved habit has been exiled far from public view.

Yet, not all is lost. I like to think we are reading in different ways, in shorter spurts, and on nontraditional media. I need to believe this in order to sleep well.

Earlier today, one of my sons handed me a bag from the chain restaurant Chipotle with a very brief essay by the brilliant writer George Saunders. “A Two-Minute Note to the Future” is part of the company’s Cultivating Thoughts Author Series.

“Know him?” my son asked.

“Of course,” I replied, as if George and I were intimates.

He began to read and, for a few glorious minutes, was lost in thought, transported to that world I know so well, that place my mind and soul inhabit only when I read.

When he finally looked up, brow furrowed, I knew he, too, had gone there. “Interesting,” he said, pointing to the essay.

Absolutely. And encouraging and promising and reassuring.

I thought: He knows, he understands, that incomparable act of communion with the written word.

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