There is something appealing about a golden age of literacy—that Dante, Chaucer, and Milton became great poets by virtue of exceptionally literate societies and that now, amidst bloggers, texts, and tweets, few people read like they used to. But hardly 10 percent of the Italian population could read Dante’s Divine Comedy at the time of its printing in 1321. In 2008, on the other hand, UNESCO reported that 98 percent of American adults could read and about 83 percent of adults worldwide were literate. Even if we’re not all reading Beowulf, the mere fact that so many people can read speaks volumes to the importance of literacy in the modern world. Studies have shown the far-reaching benefits of literacy—better health, greater social equality, increased economic prosperity—and as technology advances, bringing more reading material to more people, literacy rates will continue to rise.
And with rising populations and rising literacy rates, more books will be read. The overall volume of book production and book sales has for hundreds of years gone hand-in-hand with global increases in literacy.
In the 14th century, 80 percent of English adults couldn’t even spell their names. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, only about 30 percent of European adults were literate. Gutenberg’s invention flooded Europe with printed material and literacy rates began to rise. In the 17th century education became an emphasized part of urban societies, further catalyzing the spread of literacy. All told, literacy rates in England grew from 30 percent of about 4 million people in 1641 to 47 percent of roughly 4.7 million in 1696. As wars, depressions and disease riddled 18th century Europe, the pace of literacy growth slowed but continued upwards, reaching 62 percent among the English population of roughly 8 million by 1800.
Literacy rates followed a similar trajectory in North America. At the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, nearly 60 percent of about 3 million American adults could read1 but in the following 19th and 20th centuries, literacy rates in America grew rapidly. In 1870, almost 80 percent of 38.5 million Americans were literate and by 1940, almost 95 percent of 131 million citizens could read. Now, nearly 294 million Americans of about 300 million are literate and most children can read by the time they’re six or seven. According to the Census Bureau, 25-34 year-olds are now the best educated group of Americans: nearly 58 percent have some college education, and almost 27 percent have a bachelor’s degree or more. The percentages drop with each subsequent age group, retrospectively suggesting that over time, each new generation will be more educated, and therefore more literate, than the last.
Worldwide, literacy has steadily increased from 56 percent of almost 2 billion adults (ages 15 and over) in 1950 to 83 percent of about 4.5 billion adults in 2008. In 2008, UNESCO reported that between 1995 and 2008, there was “an overall global increase of about 6 percent (from 77 percent to 83 percent) in rates of adult (aged 15 years and older) literacy (representing a relative increase of 8 percent).”
UNESCO declared in 2008 that, “Literacy is a fundamental right and a springboard not only for achieving Education For All but also for eradicating poverty and broadening participation in society.” Images and speech are no longer the sole purveyors of information. Literacy is a right because it greatly improves the overall quality of life in the modern world. In the U.S., everything from passing a driving test to filling out job applications requires some handle on the written word. Studies in the 1960s indicated that historically, nations surpassing a threshold of 40 percent literacy rate experience strong industrial growth. A 2004 UNESCO report of 44 African countries found that literacy had a direct and positive effect on GDP growth per capita. There is evidence of literacy improving social, gender, education and ethnic equality, as well as better health and financial status. UNESCO found that Bolivian women, for instance, were more likely to seek medical attention after they had attended literacy and education programs.
Furthermore, the resources to increase literacy rates are now widely available. India, home to one sixth of the world’s population (over 1 billion people), is a compelling example of how quickly a population can become literate in the modern world. Compared to relatively slow and steady literacy growth in the U.S. (around 50 percent in the 1600s and 60-70 percent in the 1700s), literacy in India has exploded in the past fifty years. In 1947, when the country gained its independence, only an estimated 60 million Indian adults could read (12 percent of the 500 million adults). Of the now 798 million Indian adults, 510 million (64 percent) can read. Led largely by government-initiated programs like the National Literacy Mission and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (increasing elementary education), literacy has increased at a rate of 90 percent per year since the country’s independence. In other words, India did in sixty years with literacy what it took America almost 300 years to accomplish and there is good reason to believe the same is possible, even likely, in other developing nations.
Literacy rates in American and around the world are the highest they have ever been and still rising. The long-term trend is upward and there’s no reason to suspect this momentum won’t continue. The growing number of literate adults and children suggests that not only are more people capable of reading, but that more will likely choose to do so. Literacy is not a privilege, but a tool, and billions of people reach out to use it.
1 These numbers do not include enslaved persons.