Trying Not to Fret Over Literacy Stats

read-652384_960_720[1]I just finished reading a book by American journalist and Princeton University professor, Chris Hedges called Empire of Illusion (The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle), and he has a lot to say about the decline in American literacy, among many other things. The book was published in 2009 and the figures he quotes are a dozen or more years old.

Hedges says: “Functional illiteracy is an epidemic in America.” From there he reports that 7 million Americans are illiterate, 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application and 30 million can’t read a simple sentence. 50 million read at a 4th or 5th grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population are barely literate, a number that grows by more than 2 million every year. A third of high school grads never read another book for the rest of their lives. 42% of college students don’t, and in 2007, 80% of families in the U.S. did not buy or read a book. Each stat lists a footnote citing sources that include the National Institute for Literacy, National Center for Adult Literacy, The Literacy Company, and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Here in Canada, things aren’t much better, according to a 2006 CBC documentary, which claimed that 42% of Canadians are functionally illiterate. I went online to look up more current stats and not surprisingly, the numbers vary from source to source, so like most things in life, I take all of this with a grain of salt. Common sense tells me, though, that literacy can certainly be improved, and that people, in general, appear to be reading less due to other entertainment distractions.

The book delves into other topics such as the captivation with the cult of celebrity, how people believe what they’re fed on TV without questioning its authenticity, and keep in mind that Hedges was writing about this a dozen years ago. For many Americans, their reality is whatever the latest cable news show, political leader, advertiser, or loan officer says it, and most of those elements are controlled by corporations.

This troubling information reaches far deeper and is far more important than any desire I have to sell books. Rather, it’s about the decline of language and communication and analytical thinking, and the impact on our culture, economy, education, politics, and quality of life, to name a few.

Readingabook[1]Hedges isn’t the only one who’s concerned. This week, I came across another a more current headline from Publishing Perspectives, stating “UK’s 2020 World Book Day: Reading in Sharp Decline”. You can read the piece HERE.

Throughout the book, I began to wonder what, if any, solutions Hedges has to the problems of literacy and illusion. He doesn’t really, at least nothing concrete, but I know a couple of people who volunteer to help children read in schools and in adult community centers. Helping one another to improve reading skills and create joy in reading seems like a good place to start.

Author: debrapurdykong

I'm a British Columbia author who's been writing for over 30 years. My volunteer experiences, criminology diploma, and security work inspired me to write the Casey Holland transit security novels set in Metro Vancouver. I'm also a part-time facilitator in Creative Writing Workshops through Port Moody's Recreation program. Feel free to contact me at

16 thoughts on “Trying Not to Fret Over Literacy Stats”

  1. If I was king, I can think of several areas I would fix right away. I won’t mention them because when I’m king, I won’t have to argue with anyone–just do them!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can understand this happening in the U.S. where teachers pay is low and funding is poor, but all through my teaching career, once children grasped what reading was about they were hooked and that has always been teachers’ number one focus. Take a look in Chapters — while their adult section is shrinking, their children/YA section has expanded. This says something. I wouldn’t believe everything this guy wrote for a minute.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is hard to believe looking out from the world of writers and readers on the internet. But I guess we’re in our own little bubble here. There is hope in parents reading to kids, kids becoming readers while still in school, and all those library programs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is hard to believe from our perspective, and a major reason for doing this blog is to enlighten us and to reaffirm that what we do matters. Language and communication and reading matters so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think it all starts in the home. If children don’t see their parents reading, they are not going to read either. I grew up being read to and watching my mother read her own books as well. I am not so sure I would he the reader I am otherwise. It’s like wanting your kids to eat healthy but they see you eating junk all the time. With interactive e-books available on tablets I am not sure parents these days read to their kids much, but of course I wouldn’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right, and too many parents aren’t bothering to read to their kids. They too are easily distracted by devices. One of the startling facts from Chris Hedges’s book was the many millions of people in the U.S. who prefer to watch pornography and WWE wrestling as a main form of entertainment. What kind of impact does that have on kids? Thanks for your thoughtful comments!


  5. I can say that six years working at Barnes & Noble as a bookseller did give me one serious thread of hope: Kids and young adults — both groups drove sales, and were always seeming to increase. Kids love their picture books, and teens love their YA section and graphic novels/manga…As us older folk fade from the market, I find it reassuring that the seeds of the future have been planted. And those roots run deep and largely in print!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you make a great point and another person commented on the same thing. The kids section at our local chain bookstore (Chapters) has expanded over the years, so between those years and adulthood there are drastic changes in reading habits. The reasons are probably varied & I can’t help wondering how many kids never really enjoyed reading in elementary school in the first place due to reading/learning challenges.

      Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: