Have Americans stopped reading? Why?
While perusing Mark Edmonson’s New York Times Magazine essay on reading I was alarmed to see a reference to a National Endowment of the Arts study suggesting that Americans were reading less literature than they used to. Surfing over to the NEA’s web site, I found the relevant press release from last month. The highlights: ...
While perusing Mark Edmonson's New York Times Magazine essay on reading I was alarmed to see a reference to a National Endowment of the Arts study suggesting that Americans were reading less literature than they used to. Surfing over to the NEA's web site, I found the relevant press release from last month. The highlights:
While perusing Mark Edmonson’s New York Times Magazine essay on reading I was alarmed to see a reference to a National Endowment of the Arts study suggesting that Americans were reading less literature than they used to. Surfing over to the NEA’s web site, I found the relevant press release from last month. The highlights:
Literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature, according to a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) survey released today. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America reports drops in all groups studied, with the steepest rate of decline – 28 percent – occurring in the youngest age groups. The study also documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers. The rate of decline is increasing and, according to the survey, has nearly tripled in the last decade. The findings were announced today by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia during a news conference at the New York Public Library. “This report documents a national crisis,” Gioia said. “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity – and all the diverse benefits it fosters – impoverishes both cultural and civic life.” While all demographic groups showed declines in literary reading between 1982 and 2002, the survey shows some are dropping more rapidly than others. The overall rate of decline has accelerated from 5 to 14 percent since 1992…. By age, the three youngest groups saw the steepest drops, but literary reading declined among all age groups. The rate of decline for the youngest adults, those aged 18 to 24, was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population. (emphases added)
I had two reactions after reading this:
1) I usually have little sympathy with claims that the culture is going to hell in a handbasket, but after seeing those numbers, I instinctively concluded, “the culture is going to hell in a handbasket.” 2) It’s gotta be the Internet’s fault. A small drop between 1982 and 1992, followed by a more precipitous drop over the past decade? The proliferation of cable television and video games was strong in both decades, whereas the Internet was just taking off a decade ago. Surely, it’s the Internet that’s dumbing down the country.
Skimming the actual report, however, I came across this surprising finding on p. 15:
The SPPA results cannot show whether people who never read literary works would do so if they watched less TV, or whether they would use this extra time in other ways. A 2001 Gallup survey of 512 people showed that regular computer users spent 1.5 hours per day using the Internet and 1.1 hours reading books. However, those who did not regularly use a computer also spent 1.1 hours per day reading a book.
So maybe it’s not the Internet. There are two other facts worthy of note. First, it turns out that decline in total book reading — as opposed to literature — is not nearly as pronounced. The percentage of Americans who read a book did decline from 60.9% to 56.6% over the past decade, but the rate of decline was half that of literature readers. Second, while reading may be in decline, writing is booming. From page 22 of Reading at Risk:
Contrary to the overall decline in literary reading, the number of people doing creative writing – of any genre, not exclusively literary works – increased substantially between 1982 and 2002. In 1982, about 11 million people did some form of creative writing. By 2002, this number had risen to almost 15 million people (18 or older), an increase of about 30 percent.
The obvious concern with a decline in reading is that such a trend causes critical thinking skills and one’s imagination to atrophy. However, one could certainly argue that reading nonfiction, creative writing, and, hey, maybe even blogging (which for most people is a form of diary-keepng) helps to promote these skills as well. Well, that and a lot of solipsism as well. To be sure, in terms of gross numbers, the increase in writing is dwarfed by the decline of literature reading. So I’m still worried that we’re on the road to hell. But maybe the gradient to Hades isn’t quite as steep as the NEA says it is. [I’ve still got questions about the study–ed. Then read the whole thing!] One final, random thought — why hasn’t either presidential candidate seized on this report? This strikes me as the ultimate campaign issue if you’re wooing middle-class suburban voters. UPDATE: Jon H. notices something very important from p. 30: “Newspaper and magazine articles about post-September 11 developments and the war in Afghanistan may have hindered literary reading during the survey year.” Actually, that’s kind of important. If the survey year was anomalous, it could have thrown the trend line completely out of whack. There will be more on this story soon. Developing…
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Twitter: @dandrezner
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