Reading is up, but patterns grim

Nov. 28—I can't remember a time I didn't want to read.

I cut my baby teeth on Big Little Books. Still have a full set today. They were wonderful, cheaply made, tiny hardcover books that had a color drawing on every other page.

The brightly colored books had brightly colored titles: "Batman The Cheetah Caper," "Dick Tracy Meets Facey," "The Fantastic Four in The House of Horrors."

Mom used to buy them at Woolworth's, where they were piled in a heap on a big table with sides on it.

"Charlotte's Web," "Black Beauty," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Call of the Wild" and the rest followed through grade school.

In high school we had a librarian, up on the third floor of the old Nicollet school, who had his own appropriateness-screening system. One day some buddies and I who hung out in the library quite a bit had apparently convinced him we had at least a certain level of maturity. He told us to come in an alcove behind his desk where a small shelf of books sat. You're old enough to read these now, he told us, just don't show them to other kids.

I don't remember exactly what the titles were, but there was enough salaciousness to increase our interest in books.

There is conflicting data on American and global reading trends. There have been a lot of stories the past year or so noting a big increase in reading, fueled by the pandemic.

Global book sales have grown in recent years, to $88 billion last year and an estimated $93 billion this year.

A sizable share of increased sales and reading was fueled by K-12 students who were perplexed by online learning and needed some added nonfiction reference books. But young adult fiction also jumped — by 21% — suggesting teens were filling some of their lockdown time by reading fiction.

Adults reported reading more in the past year or more, with many turning to a good whodunit, thriller or science fiction to escape the realities of the pandemic.

Overall, several surveys show American reading time jumped about 20% last year, from an average of 17 minutes daily to 20 minutes. The biggest increase in daily reading came among 20- to 34-year-olds and in readers older than 65.

Which all seems to bode well for the printed word.

But studies digging a little deeper find that there are not necessarily more people reading than in the past; it's just that readers are reading more than they used to.

Roughly a quarter of American adults say they haven't read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form, according to a Pew study.

And Americans who do read are quite a ways behind much of the world, with those in China, India and several other countries spending up to twice as much time in a week reading.

Still, those of us who enjoy the written word can find some hope. Independent bookstores have been seeing a resurgence. Maybe more young and old will discover the joy of browsing a book shop and finding something interesting. And while there is plenty of fretting about kids falling behind, many know they need to stay ahead academically to be financially successful and are reading, online or in print.

Let's hope more people, particularly younger ones, discover the joy of reading. I, for one, think bringing back the Big Little Book would be a good start.

Tim Krohn can be contacted at tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com or 507-344-6383.