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Criticism, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Part 2: Is Reading Only For the Rich?

Some reader comments to my last blog, “Is Writing Only for the Rich?” intimated that, yes, having time and means are necessary to fostering creativity. It seems especially true now that so many publishers are charging contest and submission fees. No longer is time the only consideration when launching a writing career—now one must also be able to afford the expense of establishing writing credentials.

The comments started me thinking, not about writing this time, but about reading. A little research turned up these statistics, courtesy of The Jenkins Group, a Traverse City, Michigan specialty book publisher and marketing firm, which sponsored a study1 on reading:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

Whether these stats are completely accurate or not, the numbers are sobering. But the real story may come when you compare this information to statistics from the Federal Reserve2. Their numbers show that income and net worth in the 80th percentile and above are significantly higher. In fact the curve is hyperbolic when you get to the 90-plus percentile—net worth among the rich is five times greater than those in the 80-89th percentile, ten times greater than 60-79, and thirty-three times greater than the 20th percentile.3

I know it’s not scientific to put those two sets of numbers together, but perhaps what they’re telling us is that the non-affluent simply don’t read. Not just read a little, but do not read books at all. The reasons (TV, movies, internet, general tanking of the American educational system, George W. Bush, etc.) don’t really matter. What matters is they don’t fucking read. So not only are the non-affluent underrepresented economically, they are not well represented in literature. Sure, there are plenty of stories about the less affluent in books and journals, but if they’re being written by people who are affluent (see my previous blog), are those stories realistic? Are they true, or are they just the romantic musings of writers who have never been in that situation? What’s the perspective?

As a writer, I know it’s important to consider a potential audience when creating. If that audience is affluent, I may alter my writing to appeal to their tastes. Why not? Maybe thinking about all this is a waste of time, as much a waste of time as trying to get under-educated, non-affluent, TV-watching slobs to care about reading.

Look for more stories from me about angst among the affluent.


  1. Can’t vouch for the veracity of these stats, but they sure are provocative.
  2. Stats from 2007, latest year I could find.
  3. Big surprise, huh?

About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


29 thoughts on “Part 2: Is Reading Only For the Rich?

  1. Great, interesting post here.

    Posted by dfb | February 12, 2012, 3:41 PM
  2. Frightening stats – writers and artists will again have our Medicis and Borgias, I suppose.

    Posted by valerienieman | February 12, 2012, 3:47 PM
  3. Reblogged this on literature lite and commented:
    An interesting post that brings up an excellent point – intellectual life only really exists among people who have the time and resources to create it. Not that everyone had to be a bibliophile to be happy, but I know that reading can create a richer life. It’s things like these that make me want to be a teacher.

    Posted by Monica Valerie | February 12, 2012, 4:20 PM
    • Thanks for the reblog! What you say is true, but the problem is making the case for reading amid the tidal wave of cheap entertainments advertised incessantly by the big corporations. They continue to reinforce the wrong idea that being an open-mouthed TV gawker is the best way to live.

      Posted by jpon | February 12, 2012, 6:52 PM
  4. Welcome to the New Dark Ages.
    The parallels with Europe 500 years ago are striking. Now, as then, functional illiteracy is the norm. Reading has become an activity of the elite just as it was then in the persons of royalty and the church.
    There are loads of other comparisons with government and theology, and it frightens the shit out of me.

    Posted by jonzech | February 12, 2012, 4:40 PM
    • In that case, I’m glad I read. I happen to look pretty good in a purple robe.

      Posted by jpon | February 12, 2012, 6:53 PM
      • I know a great shop where you can get one in Rome. (I really blew ’em all away at the last Vicars and Tarts party… JK.)

        Posted by arichaley | March 6, 2012, 5:42 PM
  5. I find it interesting that the percentage of people who stop reading after college is higher than those who stop reading after high school. (I’m assuming that the first statistic means high school graduates who don’t go on to higher education.)

    Doesn’t that mean that the percentage of non-readers is actually higher after a secondary education?

    Posted by Averil Dean | February 12, 2012, 11:33 PM
    • Certainly seems to mean that. Considering some of the people I knew in college, it’s not that surprising. As I mentioned, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the statistics. I also haven’t been able to find out what the sample size of the study was. Still, even if the figures are close to reality, it’s a scary scenario. The educational value of reading a book, as opposed to watching a TV show or a movie seems lost on a substantial portion of the population.

      Posted by jpon | February 13, 2012, 2:28 AM
  6. Interesting numbers. I know that between my friends and I that I absorb more books than they do, and they didn’t even know ereaders existed (whereas I was excited to spend my money on one). I did get them to read a few ebooks though. They seem more likely to read that, but again, none of my friends are exactly, erm, affluent. They’re all going to decent or nice colleges but hate reading, so my perspective might be a little skewed.

    Posted by Elisa Nuckle | February 12, 2012, 11:52 PM
    • Thanks for the comment. I find it interesting that they “hate” reading. So many people do. I would be interested to know what behavioralists or psychiatrists have to say about why some people feel that way.

      Posted by jpon | February 13, 2012, 2:30 AM
  7. I can’t read these figures and take away the idea that only rich people read books. Just because you went to college doesn’t ensure that you actually make money. But the stats are shocking, nevertheless!

    Posted by girl in the hat | February 13, 2012, 2:11 AM
  8. True, there’s no scientific correlation that can be drawn from the two sets of statistics, but my gut feeling is there is a connection. Popular culture dictates certain behavior, and reading is not part of that paradigm. The affluent often have access and encouragement (and time) to pursue options that the less affluent may not even be aware of.

    Posted by jpon | February 13, 2012, 2:36 AM
  9. thanks very much Joe. An anecdote that might be instructive:

    This past fall, I taught a World Literature class of 150 students, at a “lower division” university level. This was a standard “Intro to Classical Literature” course, that older folks may remember as “Great Books” Of the 150, I would say about 15 students were able to really do the reading and work with me towards comprehension and interpretation. Another 15 could sort of do the reading. The rest, quite frankly, were not ready to read the Torah, the New Testament, the Qu’ran and Confucius. They were reading at about an 8th grade level.

    The creation of readers is crucial for a democracy to work, and it scares the pants off of me, that students can’t read complex texts and aren’t ready to even try. I think we need to think about what is happening in elementary school and in pre-school, because by the time I get students, it’s very late in the game to create a sense of “the reading life.” I suspect that people aren’t reading after college, because they never really learned to read in the first place.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | February 13, 2012, 3:57 AM
    • Sadly, you are so right concerning a well informed electorate being needed for democracy to work. Equally sad is the fact that an uninformed electorate is very, very useful to those (and there are many of “those”) who want to disable the democracy toward their own profit.

      Posted by jonzech | February 13, 2012, 5:51 AM
    • Instructive and scary, Stephanie. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it sure seems to serve the interests of the corporate moguls who dictate culture to keep the bulk of the populace happy and stupid. Why worry about art, history and meaning when you can be ENTERTAINED! And oh by the way you can spend your shrinking dollars on mindless shows and useless products to line our pockets, instead of silly pursuits like education.

      Posted by jpon | February 14, 2012, 11:29 AM
      • I agree entirely. Whether or not this is a “conscious” conspiracy, we are certainly moving towards the society depicted in FAHRENHEIT 451. I think of it whenever I see the ubiquitous tv screens in banks and buses.

        Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | February 14, 2012, 7:23 PM
  10. Last year, Nathan Bransford, an ex-literary agent/current self-described “civilian” working in the tech industry, put out a poll on his blog asking writers to decide the following question: if you only have a limited amount of time, would you read or would you write. It was almost unanimous. The writers all said they’d write. I know this is a little off-topic, but it might not just be a class thing. So many of us are on the hustle, and writers are hustling more than most to get the fewer and fewer readers out there.

    What am I doing right now? It’s Saturday night. I should be snuggling with my wife, and if not, snuggling with a good book, but I’m writing comments on a blog–albeit a very great blog. In fact, it’s such a great blog, that I am going to prolong my time away from reading to write my own take on your original question: is writing only for the rich?

    thanks again for your thoughts here.

    Posted by the circular runner | February 19, 2012, 8:56 AM
    • I just hopped over to your blog. Very, very good stuff!

      Posted by jonzech | February 20, 2012, 1:18 AM
    • On shelfari, I moderate a forum for “Writing Readers,” which increasingly strikes me as an ironic title. Someone is telling newly minted writers they should be flogging their wares on shelfari, and so there are tons of people with no books on their virtual shelf, except those they have written. I hope that’s not indicative of their reading habits, but I can’t help but wonder sometimes. At least, out of the 6,000+ “members” there are a few that actually talk about the writing craft every now and then.

      (I also have a pretty strict self-promotion policy and have had to kick out a lot of people who joined the group only to toot their own horn.)

      Posted by arichaley | March 6, 2012, 5:47 PM
  11. I’m glad my ramble got people thinking, although I wouldn’t want to be the cause of marital discord. I have to admit, though, many’s the Saturday (or other) night I have spent at the computer, instead of with my wonderful wife.

    I encourage readers to check out G’s blog post on this topic, it makes some very good points. I’ll weigh in over there soon, but I think I’ll let others have a say first.

    Posted by jpon | February 19, 2012, 11:00 PM
  12. Okay, despite being inclined to tease you about your back-of-the-napkin-Tom-Friedmanesque-unproven correlation, this is a good one to chew on. If I were the betting type, I’d put my money on reading being for the “middle class” which includes a lot of rich and poor, these days. (Middle class being more a state of mind than statement of income/assets anymore.) I work with someone who pulls down six figures and is unashamed of the fact that he hasn’t read a book since high school.

    There are whole genre categories that appeal to a lower income base. I doubt that Anne Rice and Stephen King wouldn’t be megamillionaires without lower class readers.

    On the other hand, “literary fiction” is definitely an upper middle class phenomenon. Rich, but still trying to impress each other. Truly wealthy people (as in old money) don’t need to impress anyone, so they tend to dress like schlubs and have weird/useless hobbies (like collecting antique maps), but may or may not read–based on their own whims.

    Posted by arichaley | March 6, 2012, 5:53 PM
  13. The fact that your six-figure coworker is not ashamed of his ignorance really points to an underlying problem in our society. We’ve been conditioned by advertising and moronic TV shows to believe that everyone’s opinion matters, whether they have facts and experience to back it up or not. But that’s simply not true. The corporate moguls who make millions off people they’ve tricked into believing that are laughing all the way to the bank. I’ll bet your coworker spends 95% of his income on junk the marketing industry tells him he has to have.

    And then there’s Rick Santorum, a man with a BA, a Master’s, and a Juris Doctorate, telling people that college leads to all kinds of evils. Well, he ought to know!

    Your coworker should be ashamed of himself, but then, since he doesn’t read, he’s too stupid to know how stupid he is.

    Posted by jpon | March 6, 2012, 9:27 PM
  14. I think a lot of it, particularly in this country (UK), is to do with education. Those that can afford a private education have a massively higher standard of literacy than those going through the public school system. In my job I have to correct a large number of reports and statements and the standard of basic spelling and grammar from people that graduated from college is appalling. If people can’t even construct a proper sentence then how can they ever be expected to construct an entire book? I think, as humans, we have a tendency to ridicule that which is out of our reach. Because people don’t or can’t write and don’t love the written language, they ridicule those that do read. Reading has never been cool. It’s the province of the geeks, the nerds, the affluent with too much time on their hands. I find it very sad. I also firmly believe that reading and improved literacy is a self-perpetuating cycle. Of all my siblings I am the only one that has been reading on a regular basis since a very young age and of us all my vocabulary is definitely the most expansive. My spelling and grammar are also of a higher standard and I firmly believe it’s because I read.

    Posted by alylonna | May 19, 2012, 5:22 PM
    • I know what you’re saying about the standards of the public school system. Growing up in NY, I was fortunate to have a public education that taxpayers believed in and supported. When I moved to California to go to college, I was amazed at the level of education of my classmates. I remember a basic math class that taught what I’d learned in 8th grade. Since I already knew the curriculum the teacher thought I was some kind of genius and offered me advanced material. He soon came back to earth regarding my abilities when he realized I was just an average math student. Thank you for your comment.

      Posted by jpon | May 19, 2012, 7:32 PM
    • i think this is an enormous issue. an acquaintance of mine volunteers in a public library and sits with kids on a dropin basis and reads with them. everybody on this blog should probably do that. the time to create readers is when people are very young. I have a feeling that high school is too late,and college — where I teach — is way too late to address this.

      Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | May 20, 2012, 4:17 PM
      • I totally agree. I started at a very young age and was reading Tolkein by the time I was 12! I believe it should be starting before school – parents need to be educated about reading to their children when they are very young. I grew up with Dr Seuss and the Brothers Grimm. They inspired a life-long love of literature.

        Posted by alylonna | May 20, 2012, 10:05 PM
      • beautifully put, alylonna. we probably need to be starting in pre-k. thanks for this!

        Posted by complit222 | May 20, 2012, 10:46 PM

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