“Duhh, what’s a book?” Why don’t Americans read?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

I believe that one of the quickest ways to ascertain the overall intellectual presence of a populace is by determining its literacy rate. Let me preface the stats I’m about to give by saying that many, many people I’ve met who are in my age group (I’m 28) either show no interest in reading books, have never read books for pleasure, or actually believe that reading a book is either a.) a waste of time, b.) somehow inherently effeminate, or c.) is just something that holds no interest for them. That being said, I have found that this varies by area. Out of the places I’ve been, New Jersey is one of the absolute worst offenders when it comes to people who don’t read. Independent book stores are scarce, as are major book stores like Barnes and Noble (the closest one is in Clifton, Wayne, or New York City). In Illinois, meanwhile, there are small book stores all over the place, and they’re quite popular and have remained in business for a very long time. There are also many more Barnes and Noble storefronts around.

According to demographics obtained by the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of Americans say they have not read a book in the past year, whether in paper, electronic, or audio form. That might not seem like much, but it is, and it’s a big increase from a previous Pew survey in 2011. At that time, just 19 percent of Americans had not read a book during that year. This means that more and more people are choosing not to read, and that’s a bit disturbing. But let’s move on, and take a look at the people in this country who can’t read, as well as those who have a hard time of it.

As a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy found, 32 million adults in the U.S. don’t know how to read. 32 million! That’s 14 percent of the population. Meanwhile, 21 percent of adults read below a fifth grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates cannot read. The literacy rate in this country has not gotten better for the last 10 years. It’s actually gotten a bit worse. And the ripple effect of illiteracy is so much worse than many would believe. According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” As confirmation of that statement, here’s another stat for you: 70 percent of America’s prison inmates cannot read above a fourth-grade level.

On the other hand, there’s Europe. Across the pond, countries there - particularly the Scandinavian ones - have much higher literacy rates than we do, and guess what? People there actually do it for enjoyment/as a hobby. In countries like Norway, Finland, and Luxembourg, 100 percent of the population is literate. 100 percent. Everyone. Russia and Poland are also very high up there, and Slovakia, the country where my family is from, has a literacy rate of 99.6 percent. That beats out America’s 86 percent rate (based on data collected in a 2013 survey by the U.S. Department of Education). Ukraine, Slovenia, Estonia, and Belarus also have high literacy rates. Basically, every single one of these 10 European nations I’ve mentioned has more people that know how to read than does the U.S.A.

Look, I’m not trying to attack the country in which I live or the people in it, but I am incredibly disappointed, deeply embarrassed, and worried about the intellectual future (if any) of a nation whose people elected Donald Trump as president, don’t know when the Declaration of Independence was signed, think that Christopher Columbus discovered America, and can’t tell you where the Panama Canal is, who Julius Caesar was (I’m not even joking), or name the capital of their own state. And the most infuriating thing is that things were not always this way.

I’ve said before that there has been a significant dumbing down of American people and culture over the decades, and I have figures to back me up. In 1960, the illiteracy rate in the U.S. was 2.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Now it’s 14.

According to journalist Charles Pierce, who wrote Idiot America, “the rise of idiot America today represents the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about.” This is very much in line with reality, with people left and right (no political pun intended) claiming that “climate change is a hoax,” or that “we never landed on the moon.” We are living in a very scary time, in which scientific fact is disregarded by a portion of the populace who do not understand it, or who are simply incapable of doing so. I mean, when people believe that space travel never happened, carbon dating is “wrong,” and that there’s no such thing as evolution, how do you possibly argue or reason with a person like that?

There’s no getting around it. Modern America is fucking stupid. And the fact that so many people cannot read, do not read, or will not read, plays an enormous role in that stupidity and ignorance. 18 percent of America believe that the sun revolves around the Earth. During Obama’s term as president, 29 percent of Americans could not identify Joe Biden as the vice-president. 56 percent of Americans think that vaccinations cause autism. This is some scary shit, and I, for one, am deeply ashamed of the people in this country who contribute to these percentages. And I do not blame Europeans if they look down on the United States.

We should aspire to be well-educated, well-informed, and well-read. We should hone deductive and reasoning skills, learn how to properly research a subject, and learn how to discern well. We should crave knowledge, not shun it in favor of outdated and regressive macho or know-nothing mentalities. But much of my generation, in particular, those “Millennials” who older folks see as being so advanced and forward-thinking, are major contributors to The Stupid Problem. You’re all too engrossed in your smartphones, too wedded to your narcissistic ramblings on social media, too reliant upon Google for all your answers. You’re too accustomed to instant gratification, and have lost your self-reliance. Your expectation of having every question answered by an iPhone app has left you incapable of, or unwilling to, actually sit down and thoroughly educate yourself on a subject, so that it might forever stick in your brain, rather than fall out immediately after you’ve “Googled it.”

I’ve said this time and again, both on this blog and in the various videos I have made. But I encourage people to open a book. Whether it’s historical or fictional, scientific or fantastical, academic or in leisure. Don’t be a poor example of our country. When next you travel (and I hope that you do travel!), show our friends across the pond that there are smart Americans out there. Don’t be like one of the characters in Fahrenheit 451; be like the man who wrote it! Remember: The only knowledge that can hurt you is the knowledge you don’t have.


  1. As a fellow writer, this frustrates me to no end. My husband will proudly tell people I am an author, and more often than not the response is along the lines of "why would anyone waste their time reading, much less writing?" I think reading is the most important skill one can have. Not only does it aid in communication, but if you can read, you can educate yourself on any subject.

    1. Agreed! It's very sad that so many people have that sort of reaction to reading or writing. Once it was regarded as being amongst the finest of the arts. It's always a little discouraging to know that your life's calling is something that people don't respect as much. But if you reach even a few people with it, I think it's more than worth it.