Yesterday I learned-- from Wesley Kort's Space and Place in Modern Fiction-- the architectural term SLOIP, an acronym that stands for Space Left Over In Planning, i.e. the odd-shaped bits of lawn, sidewalk, or lot, or analogous interior space, you get when you put one shape (the building or buildings whose outline you created) on top of another (the lot or lots or open interior space that was there before).
This morning I learned, from the Boston Globe, that teens and twenty-somethings are reading fewer books (per person) than ever.
Are these discoveries related? Read on...

The distressing new NEA report, a meta-survey (integrating many preexisting surveys) designed to follow up on surveys from years ago, says that only 22% of 17-year-olds read daily for fun (down from 31% 23 years ago), that folks between ages 15 and 24 read, on average, just 7-10 minutes per day, and that reading declines during the teen years. The report's sponsors, notably the ever-quotable Dana Gioia, seem to blame competition from newfangled, electronic and visual media: if you're texting, playing World of Warcraft, cruising MySpace, or watching YouTube, you must not be reading a book. (Reading, they add, is healthy as ever among nine-year-olds, partly because elementary schools encourage it; the teen years coincide with the dropoff compared to surveys past.)
There's obviously something to this analysis: when new exciting activities get introduced into an existing leisure mix, the old ones are going to lose some ground. But the dropoff in teen reading also coincides with other trends today's news stories haven't mentioned, but which makes news, on other days, all the time. As my life partner pointed out to me this morning (when she saw the same news article), teens who grow up in relative comfort find, more than before, that parents and other authority figures schedule the heck out of their days. Teen work for pay appears to be going down, in part because kids in their late teens are more likely to go to college than before, which makes them less likely to hold full-time jobs. But those who do go to college are more likely to feel financial pressure on themselves or their families while they are there, and more likely to come out with heavy debt. And those who have such debt are going to be more likely to see college (because they might feel that they have to see college) as preprofessional, as preparation for careers remunerative enough to pay off their loans (or, say, support a sick uncle, or a dependent sister, or so on).
All this is to say that both in high schools and in colleges young people-- and especially those young people who are most likely to read (and to read ambitious high-culture genres) for pleasure-- may feel they have less time in which to do so: for practical financial reasons, for emotional familial ones, out of other sorts of obligations (to teammates, to orchestra-mates, etc.), there may be more pressure now on teens most likely to read to do something other than reading the books of their choice.
And that brings me back to SLOIP. In architecture, it's a supposedly unwanted thing-- a byproduct, not an end-product-- which can produce beautifully useless things, like the vest-pocket parks once studied by the great sociologist William H. Whyte.
In life, your SLOIP is where you read: the space left over once your day is planned, the time in which no one expects you to do something-- when you are awake and nobody else in your house is awake, when you are commuting if you take public transit, when there is nothing else you have to do, or feel ethically obligated to do-- is the best, and for many people the only, space in which you feel OK about reading for pleasure.
That space is not the same as the several-hour blocks we build into our days, if we can, for such organized leisure activities as watching a feature film or a sporting event with friends or family, just as SLOIP isn't the same as the big spaces (such as the National Mall in Washington, or Fenway Park) set aside for recreation or leisure: it's more likely to come in small units, units so small or in such impractical times that nobody else gives much thought to where yours exist. As James Merrill once put it: when you read, nobody even knows you're at home.
I suspect that the decline in reading for pleasure is due not wholly to increased competition from video games, IM'd gossip and the like, but rather, partly, to a decline in SLOIP. Less SLOIP, less unplanned time, in the lives of teens and college-age people means less reading for pleasure: and your SLOIP can go down either if you have more of your life explicitly planned by other people (e.g. parents who send you to more music lessons) or if you feel you must plan more of your life yourself (e.g. in order to get into medical school, or in part-time jobs undertaken while enrolled in school).
To identify literary reading with SLOIP-- with unplanned space-in-life, unplanned time-in-day-- is to identify literary reading with reading-for-pleasure, as opposed to reading-for-use (it is also to attack the counterproductive distinction between high-culture genres and authors, such as Leo Tolstoy or James Merrill, and others, such as Daphne Gottlieb or Neal Stephenson, since all four can be read for pleasure). To make that identification is to endorse the old and still valid claim that the arts and humanities in general provide needed alternatives to lives lived for others, for quantifiable goals, for practical use. (Auden: "The poet is capable of every fallacy except that of the social worker: 'I am here to help others. What the others are here for I have no idea.'")
And so one way to think of the arts and humanities-- in high schools, perhaps, but certainly in colleges-- is as a kind of substitute for SLOIP. If you are majoring in economics and taking no courses in which you must read books, then your own desire to read (if you have one) and your practical goals (good grades, mastery of the subject that will serve your longer-term goals) point in opposite directions: as you decide how to spend your time, the practical goals will likely win out. But if you are taking a humanities course (even only one, even if it's not in your major) your practical goals and your desire to read might point in the same direction: you'll have, at the least, an excuse to postpone that problem set, that resume-builder, because, well, you have to finish The Sea and the Mirror: there's a test on it the next day.
If the arts and humanities in education are going to be a substitute for SLOIP-- if arts and humanities courses are going to let young people choose circumstances in which practical pressures (good grades, for example) and reading-for-fun point in the same direction, rather than seeming starkly opposed-- then those of us who work in education should think about what we ask our students to read, and think about what kinds of assignments promote, what kinds of assignments might prevent, and what kinds of assignments might count, for our most stressed-out students, as reading for fun. Those thoughts won't change the exorbitant cost of college, and they won't displace (nor could they displace) video games, but they might help young people keep reading texts they end up glad to have read-- especially if those young people aren't getting nearly the SLOIP they need.

Originally Published: November 19th, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. November 19, 2007

    Steve, in this post you've combined one of my great fetishes (SLOIPS) with one of my great anxieties (post-literacy). One wonders, though, why short poems haven't become more rather than less central to a culture so pressed for time. (Is this changing?) And how is it that the 3-minute pop song has enjoyed such popularity when the page-long poem vies for respect among the chattering classes, who still venerate the novel? (This does not seem to be changing.)
    I can't think of a more humane goal for humanities profs than to return some concept of SLOIP to the lives of their students. And by the way, it is true in my modest middle-class suburban town that we young mothers cannot find teenage babysitters because their busy-ness outweighs their need for $30-60 gigs.

  2. November 20, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    SLOIP is a new word for me--maybe it is sort of akin to spandrels in a sense--my first thought, of course, being me, is, does it rhyme with anything, or is it like April?
    I think Greece is probably even less of a nation of readers than the US. You hardly ever see people reading on the metro or the tram or a bus, and almost never in those inerminable bureaucratic queues that punctuate daily life here. It used to amaze me that people could sit or stand for hours doing absolutely nothing. I think the Greek school system effectively wipes out any desire to read. Kids here learn by and are tested on rote memorization, often whole paragraphs of textbook text. They too are heavily overscheduled. The public school system is so inadequate that parents have to then shell out for "frontisteria"--private after-school schools, often manned by the self-same teachers as the public schools--to teach the kids the same curriculum over again. There is next to no SLOIP. There is also a literacy problem among older adults whose education was permanently interrupted by the occupation, violence and deprivations of World War II, famine, and the Civil War of the 50s. (The first generation of living poets to have grown up without war or dictatorship has only recently coming out with their debut books.) The end of the school year is celebrated by bonfires of books.
    My own for-pleasure reading dropped off drastically after Jason was born, and has never fully recovered. I used to read a couple of novels a week--now I doubt I do that in a quarter--all my reading time is taken up with more "professional" preoccupations. And, er, Dr. Seuss.
    Hasn't Harry Potter done something about the much-reported death of reading? Or just a thumb in the dam?.
    I don't know that assignments can do much in this area. True pleasure reading is escape it seems to me, though you can enjoy an assignment. I sometimes think the best way to "promote" poetry would be to ban it in the schools altogether. Imagine all those kids furtively listening to it with a thrill of the illicit on their ipods, messaging verses to friends, memorizing their favorite new couplets...