The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Ipsos Facto, or, Fun With Statistics

September 4, 2007
Washington, DC
"I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths."
--Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Have you heard the good news? According to the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 1 in 4 Americans didn?t read a book last year. Drinks on me!

Er?what? This news doesn?t make you want to, in the words of my Beverly Vista Elementary math teacher, throw down your plates and dance in the mashed potatoes? Then look closer. Five years ago -- according to the NEA?s Reading at Risk study -- fewer than one in two Americans could answer yes to the question ?Did you read a book for pleasure in the last year?? Now it?s down -- up? -- to one in four. Up, down or sideways, the upshot is this: The proportion of Americans who don?t read has shrunk in half.

Or not. Statistics are dodgy enough when you?re comparing studies derived from the exact same questionnaire, let alone two different ones. Ultimately, statistics only get you so far, because they?re numbers and not stories.

Ray Bradbury

Take the fast-proliferating statistics about American newspaper readership, and their implicit consequences for reading itself. Does it ultimately matter to anybody but a newspaper publisher whether circulation is ?trending downward,? hemorrhaging like a hemophiliac, or merely gaining ground too slowly to satisfy Wall Street? There?s a fire going on, and the statistics tell us nothing memorable that we don?t already suspect. What we do remember, because Bradbury found the words to make it stick, is Faber in Fahrenheit 451 saying, ?I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths.? All the stats in the world don?t scare me as much as that one forbidding, foreboding sentence.

Likewise, whatever the crests or troughs or spikes say, reading is down. The rest is footnotes. I bow deeply before NEA Director of Research and Analysis Sunil Iyengar, without whose rigorous studies and evaluations the Big Read couldn?t even get down the driveway. He has another reading study due this fall that will likely scare the daylights out of you. But in the end, Sunil worries about the numbers so that we can worry about the books -- ironic, since he used to write terrific book reviews for me at the San Francisco Chronicle. We can?t get so caught up with debatable fluctuations in reading numbers that we lose sight of a crisis almost nobody denies.

All of which by way of saying, it?s a long season. The Dodgers won yesterday, but they?re still four games behind with a month to play. The Big Read team is winning big, to judge by Sunil?s local evaluations, but we?re still way behind, and nobody knows how much of the season is left. With Labor Day now behind us, dozens of Fall 2007 Big Reads are now under sail in cities and towns across America. The home office is already steaming ahead with even bigger plans for next year. Me, I?m going into an XM Radio studio today to record a roundtable conversation about Fahrenheit 451 for their Big Read Show, which premieres nationwide on September 10.

All this information is what any self-respecting statistician would call anecdotal, but anecdotes are stories, and stories tell. Without them, statistics are just numbers. If you really want to hash around conflicting interpretations of something infinitely complex, read a book?