By Greg Markley
For the Opelika Observer

An English professor (Sally Kellerman) in the 1986 movie “Back to School,” said to a successful businessman who is taking one of her classes, “Don’t you ever read?” Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) responded, “Read. Who has time? I see the movie. I’m in and out in two hours.” The professor tells Melon that in movies, a book’s message gets lost as the director’s ideas drown out the author’s.

A recent survey of American adults revealed that reading (the non-work-related type) is not dying, but is less practiced than at any time in recent memory. The survey showed where the battle between print and digital reading is headed. Two Sides North America is an independent, non-profit organization; it promotes the responsible production, use and sustainability of print and paper. 

Consumers from the U.S. (approx. 2,000) were surveyed by Two Sides on preferences relating to paper and print. When it comes to reading books, magazines and newspapers, print is preferred over digital. A remarkable 68 % of Americans believe print is the most enjoyable way to read books.

“It is great to see that print as a communications medium is still preferred by many consumers,” said Phil Riebel, president of Two Sides North America. “Clearly, people also recognize the sustainable features of paper when compared to many other products, especially electronics and plastic.”

Every so often, such as at an airport or city park, I see someone reading a hardcover or paperback book, and I’m inspired to comment on it. When the elderly person or even college student looks up for a break, I say something like “I’m glad I am not the only person here who prefers a printed book.” I tend to say that when we are surrounded by people reading a digital book or magazine.

So this survey gives me hope. It not only indicates that books still appeal to many U.S. citizens but that 65 % of Americans prefer to read magazines in print. I just renewed my subscription to The Economist for the 19th year. I am pleased I got free access to digital, but when I am not on the road and using my iPhone, I will read the glossy version in a comfortable chair at home or at a library.

Here’s the kicker: this same survey noted that 53 % of Americans prefer to read newspapers in print. Given the declining readership of newspapers, I expected to find that perhaps 70 % of us prefer to (still!) read them in print. While economic conditions have seen wide use of digital newspapers, print papers continue to surprise us with their tenacity. Readers like them, “they really like them” (apologies to actress Sally Field).

A January 2019 study of reading habits in the U.S. by researcher Amy Watson reported discouraging results. Her survey was for Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data. To no one’s surprise, this report noted that watching TV, surfing the Internet, and video gaming have severely cut into the traditional pastimes of reading and other intellectual pursuits.

Research concluded that on average, Americans ages 20 to 34 spend just 0.11 hours reading every day. Digest that; it means young adults in that age cohort spend more time taking a shower or eating a candy bar. I surmise that they spend more than an hour watching “viral” videos. Take all the showers you want, and enjoy that Mounds bar or Kit Kat mix, but do at least double that seven minutes of reading.

Older people like me read more, which is probably based on tradition and the fact that seniors have more time to open a book and take it all the way to its last page. Even people in their 50s to 80s have a weak reading trend: an overall average of only 0.28 hours spent reading per day.

“Reading is fundamental—emphasis on the ‘fun.’ At the least, of course, it is understood, in popular discourse, to be uplifting, instructive; at its best encouraging deep thought,” said Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in her final book, “The Source of Self-Regard.” (2019) 

The hobbies above –TV, the Internet, video games, and “viral” videos– are available for your enjoyment. But please leave more time for reading a book or magazine. They may even encourage deep thought, as Morrison suggests.

Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 20 of the past 24 years. An award-winning journalist, he has Master’s Degrees in education and history. He taught political science as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.