One in five British people can't name an author of literatureSheila Sund

Ever heard of Shakespeare? No? Austen maybe? Okay, perhaps a contemporary literary genius – E.L. James anyone?

I see you roll your eyes at the implausibility of such ignorance. But, it turns out, one in five British people cannot name a single author of literature. A survey by the Royal Society of Literature also showed that 15 per cent of the people surveyed find literature too difficult to understand, while a quarter had not read any literature in the last six months. The numbers are disconcerting, but hardly a surprising. In the US, The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been collecting data about Americans’ habits since the 80s, and what emerges is a steady downward trend in the interest in literary fiction. Now, not knowing your Dickens from your DeLillo is not on a par with concerns like the Syrian apocalypse, the UK committing European suicide, and America, well, turning into a real-life Simpsons episode – but we should be worried, and acutely so.

“Hailing literature as something above all other forms of entertainment is simply blind-sighted at best, and elitist at worst”

Part of the reason for the decline in reading fiction jumps out quicker than you can google ‘What is Shakespeare?’: the use of social media and other forms of non-literary entertainment is on the rise. There are simply many more platforms of entertainment competing for our precious free time than back in the 80s. Netflix and co. bring films to us rather than us having to make the effort to go to the cinema. Video games have evolved from pixellated Pac-Man to 3D full-immersion experiences, and then there’s the internet – non-existent only decades ago, now at the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with food and sex. In 2013, Nielsen Book found that, at the time, only three activities were increasing in percentage – playing ‘game apps’, visiting YouTube, and texting – while reading was set on a steady downhill trajectory.

But blaming non-literary entertainment for the utter and total demise of modern culture, or calling for the abolition of all electronic forms of entertainment, is very much not the way to go. It is a sad fact about our cultural values that throwing in a reference to Raskolnikov’s Nietzschean psyche in Crime and Punishment qualifies as cultured conversation, whereas discussing the cinematographic realisation in The Last of Us – a video game – barely warrants the label ‘culture’.

Yet films, video games, and TV carry cultural and artistic value in addition to their entertainment function just as much as literature does – just take a glance at all the discussion surrounding the deep thematic components of Bioshock or the story development, haunting atmosphere, and visuals in Inside. What’s more, the right type of video games (ones not focusing solely on blood and gore – they do exist, believe it or not) increase their players’ capacity for empathy, just as reading literary fiction does. We all love expressing our shock at headlines about gamers-turned-massacrers, but it’s about time we reconsidered our cultural values. Hailing literature as something above all other forms of entertainment is simply blind-sighted at best, and elitist at worst, and an elitist attitude is hardly going to convert non-readers into readers.

Bind these findings together with the fact that reading is a basic skill in our society, better-paid jobs more often than not demanding more efficient reading skills, et voilà, you have a burning socio-economic and class-based issue on your hands. And given that parents’ reading habits tend to be transmitted to their children, the recipe for decreasing social mobility is right there. I’m not saying being a bookworm will guarantee you your pick of high-flying jobs, but being able to work efficiently with texts is pretty much a necessity – and to guarantee that everyone has the same basic opportunities insofar as is possible, we should be focusing more efforts to tackling the downward spiral of reading. However, the decline in reading literature does present a real problem as well, and by taking a break from scapegoating video games we might just notice it. According to NEA, the amount of literature read correlates most strongly with the readers’ level of education. At one extreme, 68 per cent of adults with a graduate degree read literature for pleasure in 2015, while at the other, the percentage goes down to 30 per cent for those with only a high school degree. At the same time, the most recent results of the UK-based annual survey, ‘What Kids Are Reading’, shows that reading fewer challenging books correlates with decreasing reading age. While primary school children who engage in Harry Potter – challenging enough literature, I was happy to learn – have age-appropriate reading skills, by the time they reach their GSCEs, their literary preferences have switched to Muggle territory – the favourite among secondary school students being YouTube star Zoella’s Girl Online series – and their reading age is lagging several years behind.

Don’t ban Netflix and Nintendo or badmouth Bioshock – embrace all the electronic entertainment you want. But make sure to pick up that Potter once in a while, too