Most people blame this phenomenon on two factors: People are working more, leaving less time for leisure reading; and shiny new technology - the Internet, TiVos, cell phones, video games - is pulling younger Americans away from musty old books. What does this say, if anything, about the state of our culture? And if more and more people are surfing eBay or MySpace instead of picking up a novel, should we care?
In Salt Lake City, as in most places, measuring rising or falling levels of book-reading is an inexact science. Whether Utahns are stubborn bibliophiles or increasingly illiterate Halo 3 junkies depends, of course, on who you ask.
Salt Lake City has more college graduates per capita than the country as a whole, which, according to the NEA survey, makes its residents more likely to read literature. City residents also are voracious library users: In 2005, the most recent year for which stats are available, the Salt Lake City library system recorded 19.4 items (books, CDs, DVDs, etc.) checked out per capita - more than twice the national average.
In recent years, Salt Lake City residents have sought fewer library books. In August 2005, users checked out 126,000 books from the main library and its five branches; that number dipped to 119,000 in August this year. At the same time, use of the library's electronic databases has skyrocketed.
"I don't believe that people in Salt Lake are reading less," says Britton Lund, acting co-director of the city library system. "They're reading differently."
What are we reading?
Despite Americans' slackening reading habits, some 300,000 books - including self-published titles - hit the market every year. Book sales remain flat, however. And the nature of what's being published is changing.
Large publishers increasingly favor nonfiction over fiction, because nonfiction sells better to both men and women. The Associated Press survey found that more women than men read every major category of books except history and biography. Genre fiction - sci-fi, romance, mysteries - has sustained its popularity more than general literature, which is becoming the province of women readers. Only about one-third of American men now read literary novels, short stories or poetry.
"It's understood that 'serious literary fiction' is in some trouble in the marketplace," says Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, the leading magazine of the $23 billion book industry. "It's not selling as well as it once did."
Some observers suggest that 9/11, the Iraq War and George W. Bush's polarizing presidency have made readers more inclined toward books that help explain our rapidly changing world. Others believe readers, weary of sobering global news, are seeking refuge in escapist fiction.
Nelson believes that literary tastes are cyclical.
"We're in an election cycle and we're at war, and there's an awful lot going on with business and the Internet. And these things lend themselves to nonfiction," she says. "But I don't think fiction is going away anytime soon. There's a tendency to romanticize the good old days and say people used to read literature and now they just read junk. But people always read junk."
The power of literature
If you believe publishers and survey results, serious literature is doomed to the academic margins of mainstream America. But Oprah Winfrey, with her hugely influential book club, has proven in recent years that it's possible to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of classic novels by Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner. Philip Roth still makes the best-seller lists. And Salt Lake City bookstores say their fiction book groups are thriving.
Eclipsed in popular culture by movies and TV shows, literature may not dominate conversations in American homes the way it did a century ago. But those who enjoy it remain passionate about its virtues. Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Bookshop, believes fiction offers a deeper truth than nonfiction because the reader can explore characters' thoughts and feelings.
Asked about the importance of printed literature in a digital world, one Salt Lake City bookseller referenced a much-quoted 2001 essay by Mario Vargas Llosa. An author and professor at Georgetown University, Vargas Llosa extols the unique powers of literature, which he believes helps humans understand each other across place and time.
"Can the [computer] screen really replace the book in all its aspects? I am not so certain. I am fully aware of the enormous revolution that new technologies such as the Internet have caused in the fields of communication. But even though I enjoy surfing the Web in search of world news, I would never go to the screen to read a poem by [Luis de] Góngora or a novel by [Juan Carlos] Onetti or an essay by [Octavio] Paz, because I am certain that the effect of such a reading would not be the same," he writes.
"I am afraid that this cybernetic world, in spite of its prosperity and its power, its high standard of living and its scientific achievement, would be profoundly uncivilized and utterly soulless."
Slow down, you move too fast
In 2004, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, aping a program that succeeded in other cities, launched SLC Reads, a citywide effort to bring the community together around discussion of the same book. Since then, the mayor's office has chosen two books a year, then encouraged libraries and bookstores to provide copies of the book and play host to discussion groups. The most recent selection last spring was John Steinbeck's epic novel The Grapes of Wrath. But as the novelty wore off, the discussion groups grew smaller, says Josie Valdez, who oversees the program with another city staffer.
"We feel that any effort to promote book reading is going to benefit our community. It creates an exchange of ideas," Valdez says. "But it's a challenge. As people find themselves busier and busier . . . [they] seem to be wanting quick reading - something that's a lot shorter they can pick up and put down, pick up and put down."
Some observers believe this new millennium's fast-paced culture, with its TV-news sound bites, text-messaging shorthand and Red Bull-fueled workaholics, makes it harder for overstimulated readers to slow down long enough to digest an entire book. Others say that a peaceful interlude with an engaging book is exactly the kind of restorative break people need.
"Nowadays we're in this sort of 'snippet society,' where we don't read entire works anymore - we read excerpts," says Tony Weller of Sam Weller's bookstore in downtown Salt Lake City. "It worries me a lot. The reduction of reading in our culture does have real social and political implications. We will be stupider."
Get 'em while they're young
Surveys show that older people are most likely to read books. Children and adolescents, their reading appetite whetted by the Harry Potter phenomenon, also are consistent readers. The rate of decline in literary reading is steepest among teenagers and twentysomethings, who are most likely to be distracted by computers, text messaging and video games.
"I don't see teenagers coming in to check out books except to fulfil their course requirements. Occasionally we'll find a teenager who loves to read. But it's not as common as it used to be," says Tess Kendall, 24, circulation supervisor at the Syracuse branch of the Davis County Library. Kendall also has noticed fewer of her friends reading books. "It takes more work to pick up a book and really get into it. It's so much easier to go online and check out YouTube."
Other observers insist that many young Utahns remain avid book readers. Sam Weller's and The King's English have steady streams of customers in their 20s. Graphic novels - artful comic books for adults - have exploded in popularity among young readers at the Salt Lake City Library. And Mark Matheson, an associate professor of English at the University of Utah, believes his undergraduates are just as passionate about literature as they were 17 years ago.
"We're not as much of a print culture as we were," says Matheson, who is currently teaching Beowulf. "But the book is a far more enduring artifact than people thought it might be a decade ago. I see no diminishment in my students' eagerness to read."
Some Utah educators say the important thing is to get students interested in reading; whether it's through books or computers is not important. At high schools in Sandy, Draper and South Jordan, for example, tech-savvy teachers assign articles that students must access through online databases.
"We're using this technology to increase students' motivations to read. Is it different from going to the library and checking out a book? Yes. But it's still a form of literacy," says Carolyn Gough, a language-arts consultant with the Jordan School District. "Literacy encompasses a lot more than just books."
So maybe Utahns are reading differently. And maybe that's not a bad thing. Reading, whether on a printed page or a computer screen, still requires effort because readers, unlike watchers of YouTube or "Desperate Housewives," must use their imaginations to supply their own images. Maybe more and more people will read material online. But as our society grows ever faster, noiser and flashier, there will always be readers who seek to slow down, unplug and engage with the most enduring form of entertainment short of storytelling: a good book.
* BRANDON GRIGGS can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8689. Send comments to email@example.com.
Bye-bye books? * Among adult Americans who call themselves readers, the average number of books read in the past year: 7
* Among all adult Americans, the average number of books read in the past year: 4
* Percentage of adult Americans who said they read no books within the past year: 25
* Median number of books read in the past year by women: 9
* Median number of books read in the past year by men: 5
Source: Associated Press-Ipsos poll, conducted Aug. 6-8, 2007, via telephone interviews with 1,003 adults.