Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Does Anyone Else Notice a Gap Between Reading Levels and the Years of School People Supposedly Had?

It is commonly claimed that American adults read at about an eighth grade level, with the claim often substantiated by presentations of the reading level of various bestselling books. John Grisham and James Patterson, for example, who together account for a very high proportion of the top-selling books for adults for the last three decades, each write at an eighth grade level.

However, American adults on average go way, way past the eighth grade in school as a matter of course. Indeed, with 90+ percent of Americans having high school or equivalency diplomas, at least three-fifths having some college, almost forty percent having B.A.s and a tenth or so having graduate and professional degrees, the "average" American may be said to have fourteen years of school past kindergarten; to be an Associate's Degree-holding community college graduate educated up to "grade fourteen."

Of course, genuine pleasure-reading will not have people reading at their limit for long, especially where fiction is concerned. The prevailing "dramatic" ideal in fiction has authors obliged to spellbind their audience, absorb them in a narrative they follow breathlessly as they forget themselves--a very delicate state indeed, easily ruined by their having to pause and puzzle something out. And of course, most such pleasure-reading is done when people are not at their best--when, perhaps after having had really heavy demands made on their skills as readers all day, they need a break, on the commuter train home or while trying to relax before bed (when making "the little gray cells" work overtime is entirely ).

Accordingly, even if not worried overmuch about reaching the "below average," there is a case for those looking for a popular audience to write at a level safely below the capacity discussed here.

Still, grade eight is a long way away from grade fourteen, while the fact remains that even this likely understates the gap. After all, those who read much are better-educated than the average--with most books apparently bought by college-educated persons of middle age or older, implying a still lengthier formal and informal education. At the same time when one actually surveys the bestsellers one sees that grade eight is an upper limit, with much work written at a lower level than that. Dan Brown and Stephen King write at a sixth grade level--with even more literary authors working in that range or below it. (According to the survey I am citing Cormac McCarthy writes at a fifth grade level.) And of course there is the wide adult audience for YA fiction, without which the boom of the late '00s and early '10s could not have happened. The result is that we seem to be talking about people who have been educated up to grade sixteen favoring grade six or five when they look for recreation--a genuinely immense gap.

One could see that as reflecting just how stressed out people are (a thing not to be underestimated)--or how unsatisfactory the more grown-up books have become (also not to be underestimated). One may also attribute it to e-book readers like the Kindle, which may be best suited to lighter fare.

But one can also see it as a matter of a growing gap between the data we get when we quantify education (via years of school) and the actual skills those years in school are supposed to provide, especially given the abundance of other evidence for that position, not only in the United States (where bashing the education system is a highly politicized national pastime) but elsewhere. Indeed, thinking about such matters I find myself recalling that scene in Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story in which Lenny tries to read to Eunice out of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and wonder how long it will be before this stops being satire and becomes everyday literal reality.

Given some of what my readers have had to say about these things over the years I suspect that some reading this will say we are already there.

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