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Hey Steve Jobs, reading is fundamental

January 27, 2008 |  8:00 am

We’re a little late to the party on this one, but what exactly is the deal with Steve Jobs? Last week, while expounding on the virtues of the new MacBook Air to John Markoff and David Pogue of the New York Times, Jobs tore into Amazon.com’s Kindle digital book reader, claiming, "It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.... Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore."

Jobs’ argument is an old (and, I think, tired) one, based on the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2004 study "Reading at Risk," which found that almost half of Americans hadn’t read a single book of literature (defined by the study as fiction, poetry or drama) over the course of a year. That’s a troubling statistic, but I’m not alone in thinking that the NEA’s original data were flawed.

In the first place, it defined reading--not to mention literature--far too narrowly, and in the second, it didn’t take into account new delivery systems like the Kindle itself. Even the NEA seems to have recognized this; last November, the endowment released an updated study, "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence," which takes a broader view of how and what we read.

I don’t want to sugarcoat the latest NEA findings; they’re sobering, to say the least. According to the study, "less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers," and 19% of 17-year-olds don’t read at all. Still, before we start crying that the sky is falling, I’d suggest we look at it another way. For me, the fact that 81% of 17-year-olds are reading in whatever manner is cause for encouragement, especially in a culture where they’re encouraged at all turns to pass up prose and poetry in favor of what it is that Steve Jobs has to sell.

In any case, I agree with Scott Esposito at the blog Conversational Reading, who points out that "if you have a product that at least 60 percent of America might use, you’re not limiting your market. Besides, maybe the Kindle will re-popularize reading, just like the iPod popularized scooting around with music glued to your ears at every conceivable instant."

David L. Ulin