Friday, August 6, 2004

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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:

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.


posted by Dan on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM


I've taken to reading a lot of books these days, in my Palm Pilot. I've purchased quite a number of books this way.

I wonder if such purchases are being counted here?
I'm curious as to their methodology.

posted by: Bithead on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

Query whether increased working hours among white collar types -- the "reading classes" -- has anything to do with it.

posted by: alkali on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

Dan, that literature reading is the same among computer users and non-computer users is actually evidence that the Internet is the explanatory variable.

Computer users are more educated and you'd expect them to be more literate. If they are only just as literate as others, that means that the Internet is probably substituting for literature reading.

And, of course, anecdotal evidence carries the day: I'm young, a heavy Internet user, and I rarely read fiction anymore. Why not? Well, probably it's because I spend so much time on the Internet reading blogs.

posted by: Bob McGrew on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

Is there any possibility that the content and character of current literary fiction might have something to do with it?

Poets declared that rhyme and meter had nothing to do with poetry, because a few geniuses like e e cummings could make it work. So poetry abandoned rhyme and meter, and who reads poetry? Poets and those college students assigned to do so.

Similarly, literary fiction declared that things like plot, continuity, and character development were old hat, passe. The exemplar of modern literary fiction is first person present stream of consciousness from the POV of an ADD-suffering lesbian with Tourette's Syndrome. Nothing happens but variations on Tab A into Slot B and potty jokes recast in exquisitely opaque language, and it doesn't even have the immediacy of porn.

And people are reading less of it.

What a surprise.

Ric Locke

posted by: Ric Locke on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

I think that this has a lot to do with the school system. I don't like reading fiction because I feel that I get nothing out of it. It's boring, the story never produces as much insight as is advertised by the critics, and it takes up large portions of time which could be more productively put to reading nonfiction. Perhaps I would have been like this no matter who taught me literature, but I learned all of the above things reading assigned literature for school. After that drab, uninteresting literature which was analyzed to death, why would I bother continuing? After all, the excruciating boredom which I had to endure was caused by the "best" literature available (Twain, Steinbeck, Joyce, etc.)

So I'll just stick to math and science, thanks very much.

posted by: Lucas Wiman on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

If you surf over to Publishers Weekly website, they have statistice that show that the number of "trade books" (i.e., general interest books, both fiction and non-fiction, not including textbooks, religious books, etc) sold has been steadily increasing over the long term.

I agree with the poster above - fiction these days is impossible to read. But reading hasn't stopped.

posted by: Ender on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

(Caution: anecdotal information) I've noticed my own modern fiction reading has fallen way off, although my reading of "the canon" ans well as non-fiction (history, biography) has expanded to just about make up the difference.

For more than 15 years I took the NYT Review of Books, and was conversant with most works treated, and read many.I became fairly familiar with modern American fiction trends. And I grew tired of seeing the same "dysfunctional" (jeez, how I learned to hate that word) protagonists. I really didn't want to spend any more time delving the internal life and struggles of the gay/lesbian/divorced/separated/addicted/alcoholic/ atheist/agnostic/depressed/schizophrenic/sexually-abused/
betrayed/unfaithful men and women I had been finding in "good" literature for two decades. I find modern fiction peopled for the most part by jaded, shallow, feckless, self-indulgent and self-absorbed twits, from whom I have ceased learning much about the human condition.

So, I read the classics. And hit a lot of the blogs....

posted by: John Earnest on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

"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."

They did, Dan. You just didn't read about it.


posted by: SteveMG on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

I've also seen the rise of books-on-tape as a possible explanation.

There has also been an explosion of magazines in the last decade or so, which might account for it. Just because people are not reading books, doesn't mean they haven't found other streams.

posted by: Ann on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

I think the commenters who cite the "quality" of modern fiction have struck the nail precisely on the head, particularly with the comment on the "dysfunctional" antiheroes. for me, unless fiction is both brilliantly-written and extraordinarily evocative, it simply can't compete with well-written non-fiction in terms of story lines, drama, or human interest, and unless there's some sympathetic character with whom i can in some sense identify i can't relate to it emotionally. Give me "A Tale of Two Cities" over ANY novel of the last hundred years.

posted by: Robert E. Bihlmayer on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

My book reading has gone down, but I'm reading much more news an opinion than I ever have before, thanks to the internet. Overall, the amount I read is way up.

posted by: David Pinto on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

One final, random thought -- why hasn't either presidential candidate seized on this report?

Because "reading" is what the liberal elite does. Neither candidate wants to be associated with that.

posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

An interesting passage is the following, from page 30 (page 43 in the pdf):

"Newspaper and magazine articles about post-September 11 developments and the war in Afghanistan may have hindered literary reading during the survey year. "

Well, gosh. Wouldn't want people reading up on such things when they ought to be reading Proust.

posted by: Jon H on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

The alarms really went off here in Seattle, which used to pride itself on having the highest reading rate in the country; now we, along with everyone else, seem to be reading fewer books.

I read like a fiend; it's a real addiction. It used to amaze me, umpetty years ago in college, how many of my fellow students never read anything they weren't assigned to read. And, yeah, if your only exposure to "fine literature" (Steinbeck, et al.) is analyzing it to death in English Lit, you're gonna hate it.

My favorite genres are non-fiction (esp. history), science fiction, and mystery. The latter two are still looked down on, for reasons I don't understand. You simply will not find more enthralling, lyrical and *intelligent* writing than in sci-fi and mysteries (though, granted, you have to pick the right writers). Find a writer you like, read all of their stuff...and then ask the bookstore people to recommend similar writers. I was turned on to Larry McMurty, Jorge Amado, and even Louis D'Amour (he wrote a novel that takes place during the Crusades!) by asking for recommendations.

Anyway, my two cents on why people don't read: it's a time and attention investment, and we're steadily becoming an entire culture of ADHD sufferers. Watching a plot unfold, getting to know characters - it takes time and attention, and a certain capacity for sequential thought. None of which are valued much these days.

posted by: CaseyL on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

I've also seen the rise of books-on-tape as a possible explanation

Again, reasonable. But just as a poersonal thought, the only way I've found such of use was when I was driving, which I do quite a bit of, as a rule... and when my sight was impared at one point.

I wonder.... How much of what is being lamented here is the schedules we call keep nowdays?

posted by: Bithead on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

How much literary fiction have you read lately? I'm reminded of what Crash Davis (Costner's character in Bull Durham0 said about the novels of Susan Sontag -- self-indulgent narcisstic garbage (or words to that effect). So too with today's canon, alas. Who can blame Americans for reading something, anything, else?

posted by: Kilbride on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

My wife and I are voracious readers. Our son, when he was little (say up to 11) was as well.

His recreational reading dropped off as his school reading shot up--and it went up very considerably.

Now, at 19 and a sophomore in an Ivy League, his recreational reading is pretty much limited to plays, which is a particular interest. Text reading is a very heavy load.

But he does another kind of reading for several hours a day: it's the Internet. I consider that activity, "when your eyes move back and forth while your brian takes in new information" to be "reading".

A lot his on-line time is spent in IM-ing. What's the content of that? I'd consider it to be a blend of fiction/non-fiction. It's most assuredly in a different format than a traditional (or even post-modern) novel, but it's still reading as recreation.

It exposes him to the full range of human angst, happiness, comedy and tragedy, as well as adventure. I can't see how that differs much from what he'd pick up in a library, other--perhaps--than that it's not coming from an "established" writer.

I think the NEA study is a faulty one, using incomplete or inappropriate tools to measure a behavior.

posted by: John on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

Count comic books. I'm a huge comic fan, and I have to say, in the last 3 years, there have been more outstanding comic books than there have been mediocre novels. And, being the comic geek that I am, I am a part of a large group of people who don't read "literature", but read in the vicinity of 500 pages of comic books a month. While comic readership is DRASTICALLY down since the early 90s, it's still a large number of people who probably aren't counted, based on the definition of "literature".

posted by: Liberal Jim on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

I have a theory to explain this phenomenon: public education teaches kids to hate reading.

I blogged on the topic once:

My other pet peeve is that schools often choose literary reading material that is counterproductive toward inspiring students to like reading. Sure, there's room for challenging reads like Beowulf or 1984 and a few tragedies here and there, but don't go overboard on that stuff. Every reading assignment doesn't have to be a mental strain (Canterbury Tales in the old English), a journey into depression (Catcher in the Rye), or a burdensome bore (The Great Gatsby). I had to read the latter two in high school; it's no wonder I didn't discover my love for reading until my early 20s.
posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

I suggest that much of the literary reading, from a personal, anecdotal version has gone the way of television. I had a son who when growing up read voraciously in non-fiction, but seemed to get all the fiction he wanted from television. Now, I think many of the people I know who used to read literature(?) voraciously read more for work.

posted by: chuck rightmire on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

One other thing to consider. A lot of kids coming out of high school simply can't read, period.

The community college system here in wonderful CA requires potential students to pass a literacy test before enrolling. It's not just for those who have something other than English as a primary language.

How you feel about reading is more important than, oh, say, actually being able to read these days.

posted by: George Atkisson on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

Odd study. We're reading less and yet there are more books, bookstores, magazines, and computers stores (whose screens display, you know, reading material) in my little neighborhood than I've ever seen before. So everyone is writing and no one is reading? Eh. It's one study. With some serious flaws.

Oh, and today I spent some time in the Paper Source. A great store filled with beautiful things to make more beautiful things. And yes, this relates to the topic at hand. Some of the time that I used to spend reading fiction in the past(my favorite hobby) I now spend reading for work, working on little art projects and excercising (good old personal trainer). Maybe we are using our leisure time in different ways since different forms of leisure are more easily available?

posted by: MD on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

Agree: most of classics are better and why cited before me(yes, read them and read Great Books series on my own a couple times); overanalyzing and dissecting ruins it, and now resent being fed a line and having literature pushed down our throats while younger and then again through univ system. Entire Program areas should be cut 95%. In my view, more should be saved for age 30 and above in adult community are seminars.

And, book sellers are finally realizing book sales are down. Wish they would quit wasting the trees.
Univ system of publish or perish and libr. system needs altering too. (Part-time staff other than for sc res and new discoveries would take care of that problem.)

They're still writing and bringing out new books about the founding fathers.

posted by: Alex on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

That post was too long. Could you include an executive summary of, say, three sentences?

posted by: James Joyner on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

Back in the 1970s I was told by librarians that only a few thousand people read books. Then came Amazon. The NEA study strikes me as laying the groundwork for the NEA's request for more money, or for someone to request a grant, for a huge project that would fund book-reading programs.

posted by: Fausta on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

Reading leads to a liberal-elite lifestyle.

posted by: Average Joe (not) on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

One does get that impression from those Book-Of-The-Month Club mailers. I used to belong; hardly ordered anything cuz what they sold was drivel. Yeah, but I think Salman Rushdie is a hack, so what do I know?

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 08.06.04 at 04:14 PM [permalink]

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