By Antoine du Rocher
NEW YORK, 8 July
2004—Today the United States
National Endowment for the
Arts (NEA) released a survey, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary
Reading in America," reporting the dramatic decline of literary reading among
American adults. According to the survey, fewer than half of American adults
now read literature (narrative fiction, poetry, plays). The findings were
announced today by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia during a news conference at the New
York Public Library.
"America can no longer take active and engaged
literacy for granted," according to Gioia. "As more Americans lose this
capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent minded.
These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can
afford to lose.
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 overall rate
of decline has accelerated from 5 to 14 percent since 1992. The steepest rate
of decline, 28 percent, occurred in the youngest 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.
Women read more literature
than men do, and the rate of decline among women, while still significant, is
less severe than that among men. Only 38 percent of adult males in America now
read literature at all.
"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."
The most important factor
in literacy reading rates is education, the report shows. Only 14 percent of
adults with a grade school education read literature in 2002, versus 74 percent
of respondents with a graduate school education.
Family income also
affects the literary reading rate. About one-third of the lowest income group,
those with a family income under $10,000, read literature during the survey
year, compared with 61 percent of those with family income of $75,000 or more.
The survey also studied the correlation between literary reading and
other activities. For instance, literature readers watched an average of 2.7
hours of television each day, while people who do not read literary works
watched an average of 3.1 hours daily.
Reading also correlates with
other aspects of a more active lifestyle, with readers almost three times as
likely to attend a performing arts event, almost four times as likely to visit
an art museum, more than two-and-a-half times as likely to do volunteer or
charity work, and over one-and-a-half times as likely to attend or participate
in sports activities. And those who read the most had the highest level of
participation in other activities.
Of course, Americans could actually
be plunging through non-fiction tomes such as the most recent
presidential memoir, boning up on the
latest fad diet plan, or even
trying to understand
extremism and Euroskepticism. But
this seems unlikely. More credible speculations include other pastimes that
take up the time that could be devoted to reading: some passive, such as
television, appeal to a broad audience; some marginally more active, such as
computer gaming and internet usage,
are enormously popular among the young. None of these, however, seem likely to
broaden Americans' world view, or to foster engagement with others—whether
imaginative, as through reading, or real, through the other activities in the
public sphere that have fallen out of favor.
It would be too glib to
attribute the (apparent) ease with which the abusers at Abu Ghraib dehumanized
and brutalized their captives to insufficient time spent with the nineteenth
century novel. But many in the United States now seem to find those who are
foreign, or who disagree with them, incomprehensibly alien, evil, or even
unreal; perhaps the key to this lies in the kinds of interaction fostered by
those pastimes that have become most popular—other people either exist for
their entertainment, when on television, or to be blown up, when in video
It's hard to imagine what could lead a population that's learned
to crave quick, sensational entertainment from their media and their news back
to the contemplative pleasures of the novel or other literary forms. In the
near term, films like Fahrenheit
9/11, however shrill, sensationalist, and marred by
Michael Moore's weakness for the
cheap shot, seem to stand a marginally better chance of punching through the
average non-reader's low threshold of distraction. Ultimately, though, it's
hard to imagine a population becoming more thoughtful through watching more TV,
playing more video games, and closing their borders.
Antoine du Rocher is a French
cultural journalist and writer based in New York. He is also a member of the
editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.