Public reading: More please!

7 November 2018

Since phones have taken over it seems to me that people are reading less in public spaces. My children and I flout this at every opportunity. On a trip to the shops all three of them can often be seen trailing behind me, book in hand. (No one has met with calamity yet.) If I know I’ll be wasting time in queues, I’ll stuff my current novel into my bag before I leave home. But then as I stand in a line of people bent over their phones, I often feel almost mournful. Perhaps those either side of me are reading ebooks, but their scrolling fingers suggest otherwise. And I wonder, are we losing the art of reading? Are people reading less? Are we so spending so much time on social media that we are no longer taking time for deep reading?

A 2016 Nielsen report puts average media consumption (social media, TV, radio and all electronic devices) at 10 hours a day. How is there time for anything else? And in 2016, a National Endowment for the Arts survey found that only 43 per cent of American adults had read ‘a work of literature’ for pleasure in the previous year. That stat depresses the hell out of me. More than half the country hadn’t read even one book in a whole year. That’s 163 million people who didn’t pick up a book for pleasure.

Anecdotally, the word from my children about their classmates’ lack of interest in recreational reading doesn’t paint a rosier picture. Last week Miss 15 reported that her English class complained volubly about a Roald Dahl short story they were asked to read. It was too long, they all said. Miss 15 rolled her eyes as she recounted this. It was 10 pages.

An airport ottoman made for reading.

It worries me, this state of affairs. Not just because I’m a writer and editor, but because we need to be growing imaginative thinkers. Reading gives us space and time for reflection. Books are places where ideas germinate, where empathy is built, where questions are asked, and popular narratives are interrogated. In other words, with all the challenges our world is facing right now, we need books more than ever.

So won’t you join me in bringing books into the public arena at every opportunity? Read wherever you find yourself, be it in a queue or on a bus or waiting for a plane. Let’s stop scrolling and instead cram books into every corner of our lives. I’ll wager we’ll all be the better for it.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll encourage someone else in that queue/bus/airport lounge to put down their phone, and pick up a book.


  • Reply Whispering Gums 6 December 2018 at 10.52 am

    Sorry Irma, I saw the pic on Instagram but hadn’t got around to reading your post. It would be interesting to compare those figures with say 20 or so years ago. Are Americans reading less than they were a couple of decades ago? Probably, but I think that’s a useful piece of information because it can help target what is the issue.

    Like most readers, I love seeing people read books on public transport (when I go on it which is rare) and, interestingly, I see a few in concert halls waiting for a concert to start. They are the ones who go to concerts on their own I guess. Anyhow, it’s lovely to see.

    I must say that I read less when I’m out because I often use that time to catch up on Social Media, and I know that if I haven’t got a book with me – something that would never happen in the past – I have several books on my Kindle app (Griffith Review editions, Meanjins, etc) and I’ll read those. However, yesterday I planned to have coffee on my own in a cafe before volunteering and I specifically took my current paper-form book with me!

  • Reply Jenny 8 November 2018 at 2.20 pm

    I love it when I am out and about and see people reading real books. Even better when I leave a bookcrossing registered book on a public seat then wait and watch to see who picks it up and then walks away with it.

    • Reply Irma 9 November 2018 at 9.18 am

      I love this so much! It’s like being a book fairy!

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