"So many books, so little time" Frank Zappa
With the popularity of television, movies, the Internet, and digital devices in general, the simple pleasure of reading a book seems almost quaint by comparison. Though print isn't quite dead yet, heavy book users are almost an endangered species in this technological society of ours. According to one recent study from Germany, only three percent of the population identified themselves as heavy book users (reading more than eighteen books a year). And that's pretty typical for most industrialized countries these days, especially with the cost of printed books remaining stable while digital media continues to drop in price.
Almost all of the media psychology studies looking at the effects of heavy media use on consumers have focused on electronic media. This includes studies of heavy television use, Internet gaming, video watching and so forth. But what about the impact that heavy book use has on readers? I'm not talking about research into reading ability or how well people understand text, but on the kind of impact that heavy book reading can have on how we interact with other people.
Being a heavy reader is far less common than it used to be. European surveys suggest that leisure reading has dropped significantly in favour of watching television, for example. Still, books can have a powerful influence on readers, whether by reading for entertainment or for knowledge about the world. A 2006 study found that lifetime exposure to fictional text is strongly related to social ability and empathy though non-fiction doesn't appear to have the same effect.
And there are other social benefits to being a heavy reader. Not only are literate people able to discuss what they've read in polite conversation, but there are the different ways that readers can demonstrate their interest in books to others. Whether by prominently displaying bookshelves filled with books in their homes or being seen reading in public, readers send a message to other people about themselves that shows what interests them. This ties into what what Karl Marx referred to as the fetish value of possessions where displaying books becomes a way of expressing the user's identity and personal values.
A new research study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture explores the different motivations behind heavy book use. Written by Johannes Kaiser and Thorsten Quandt of the University of Münster, the study recruited 613 heavy book users as part of a broader survey looking at book readership in Western and Eastern Germany. For the purpose of the study, "heavy book user" was defined as either reading eighteen or more books in a year or else owning at least 120 books. The study participants completed questionnaires looking at personality factors, human values, their reasons for reading books (whether for passing the time, relaxation, escapism and entertainment, or learning), emotional attachment to books, and the social aspects of reading (whether they use books to "fit in" with others, whether they are considered "bookworms" by others, whether they keep their books on display, etc.).
Based on the study results, the average heavy book user reads about forty-five books a year and owns over six hundred books. On average, heavy book users are more likely to be female and differ widely in terms of age. While women read significantly more books than men, they also own fewer books than men do. Heavy book users are also lower in extraversion but more open to new experiences than average. They are more likely to report reading books for entertainment and relaxation. Age is also a significant factor with older books users reading more books than younger users.
While traditional stereotypes tend to portray "bookish" people as being shy intellectuals who prefer to stay at home reading, the results of this study suggest that heavy book users can vary in important ways. They are likely to be more liberal than the general population but also less disciplined and more easy-going. There is also strong evidence for heavy book users relying on the "fetish value" of books to define themselves as "bookworms" who are highly educated as well as being authorities in those things that interest them the most. Heavy book users typically enjoy being asked for advice that can allow them to display their knowledge to others.
By breaking the results down further, Kaiser and Quandt argue that there are three main categories of heavy book users who can be very different in terms of why they enjoy reading:
1. Compensating book fetishists - these are the book users who are shyer, more introverted, and less confident than average. Since it's relatively hard for them to express their own identity in social settings, they often rely on the fetish value of books to show the world that they are passionate about what they read. This includes appearing in public places with a book under their arm or attending book events more for the purpose of being seen rather than actually socializing.
2. Sociable book fetishists - these are the users who actually rely on books to reach out to other people, either by belonging to book clubs, attending fan conventions, or book readings. Not only do they use book events to meet new people, but they form communities either through face-to-face meetings or online. They are also more extroverted, open to new experiences, and actually prefer more intimate social settings rather than impersonal ones. For them, being heavy book users means relying on books to provide topics to discuss when meeting other people, whether friends or strangers.
3. Nonfetishists - Not all heavy book users rely on their fetish value, they simply enjoy reading and may not make a point of showing this to the world. They can still use books to express themselves but only as one of many interests that they may have. Aside from being more introverted than usual, they don't seem to have many personality traits that set them apart from other book users.
So, what do these research results say about the different reasons people have for reading books? Again, while heavy book users only represent a small minority in most places, it is still important to understand what motivates us to read books and share that enjoyment with others. Despite the belief that book reading is a dying art with so many other alternatives out there, the simple book still has its place in our complex society.
So don't be afraid of being labelled a "bookworm." As this study demonstrates, there are far more benefits to reading than most people appreciate.