The Wilson Quarterly

The editors of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern have a one-word response to apocalyptic proclamations that the printed word is dead: phooey! They declare we have arrived at a “Golden Age of Reading and Writing.”

Over the last year, McSweeney’s researchers delved into data from Nielsen’s Bookscan, which monitors book sales to the general public. The results paint a surprisingly positive picture of the printed word’s health.

In recent years, the United States touted record-setting numbers of published authors, publishers, and original book titles. Although there was a slight decline from the all-time high in 2009, book sales comfortably topped one billion volumes last year despite a lackluster economy and continuing mass unemployment. Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University library, notes that this trend extends beyond America’s borders: China and Brazil are experiencing publishing booms as well. Worldwide, one million new titles will be released this year.

Libraries are similarly feeling the effects of the public’s appetite for print. The McSweeney’s editors write that circulation of library books has reached record levels, and library memberships have increased, with 68 percent of Americans currently holding library cards. Darnton adds that libraries remain vital, not just because they lend books but because they assist people in wading through the information wilderness. This is nothing new, he says. Libraries have always been more than “warehouses of books.”

It’s only a hoary myth that people in the past had a greater appreciation of the printed word, the McSweeney’s editors snort. While in the glory year of 1787 only 60 percent of American adults were considered literate, today that number has jumped to 98 percent. Instead of lamenting golden ages past, we should be encouraged that “more people are reading than at any time in human history.”

THE SOURCES: Introduction to volume 37, by the editors, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Spring 2011, and “Five Myths About the ‘Information Age’” by Robert Darnton, in The Chronicle Review, April 17, 2011.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Dineshraj Goomany

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