NEA's Reading at Risk Elicits Strong, Varied Responses

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The results of a major survey on the state of reading in America were released last Thursday by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the organization termed its findings a "bleak assessment" and the news "dire." In his preface to Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, NEA chairman Dana Gioia explained that the report's key findings could be summarized in one sentence: "Literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young."

Over the past 20 years, the rate of decline in literary reading among the nation's future leaders and thinkers, those from 18 to 24 years old, was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population, according to the report, which was based on a sample size of more than 17,000 individuals and 2002 Census Bureau figures. Overall, the study found that from 1982 to 2002 there was a decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers.

Those reading any books at all fell to 57 percent in the 2002 study, down from 61 percent in 1992. The categories of book readers used by the NEA were: Light book readers: one to five books; Moderate book readers: six to 11 books; Frequent book readers: 12 to 49 books; Avid book readers: 50 or more books, all annually.

NEA researchers were unable to make direct correlations between falling reading rates and television watching or Internet use, although the latter, to them, seems more significant that the former. As incomes and educational levels rise among a population, so does the number of books read; literary readers are more likely to attend live performing arts activities such as concerts and plays. Literary readers are much more likely than those who do not read to visit museums, do volunteer or charity work, and attend sporting events. Readers are not just couch potatoes without remotes -- analyzing all of the adults who participated in sports in 2002, researchers found that 38 percent of all the literary readers versus 24 percent of the non-readers actually play sports. Contradicting the myth of the pallid East Coast eggheads with their noses in books, the study found that residents of the West are 14 percent more likely to be literary readers than those in the Northeast; 13 percent more likely than Midwesterners, and 20 percent more likely than Southerners.

The full report, available online at, details the decline of so-called 'literary' reading among various demographic groups, the types of activities associated with high levels of reading, and the other leisure time options Americans are selecting in lieu of reading.

Around the country, authors, editors, booksellers, and journalists are among those responding to the results. Some are looking for the silver lining, some are surprised, and some are not. Most believe that NEA research is valid but may not reflect some of the nuances of the American reading public. As with the threat of global warming, some fear that immediate steps must be taken to reverse this trend or the situation may worsen precipitously -- especially because 18- to 24-year-olds are most rapidly becoming non-readers. Others believe that the situation will eventually level out.

Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, and president of the American Booksellers Association, participated in the NEA news conference where the results of the study were released. Kaplan told BTW that he saw the results as "in essence a call to arms" and noted that, while it has always been the mission of booksellers to increase the number of readers, bookstores, as well as other institutions, have to look at what they can do to improve the situation.

"The drop off [of literary readers] among young people is particularly troubling," said Kaplan. "We all need to look outward to our communities using whatever influence and connections we have."

As an example, Kaplan suggested publishers might begin including local schools as stops on author tours. "Many of these kids might never have seen a real author. Bringing an author into their school to talk directly to them is an important step in understanding book culture."

Truth: More Popular Than Fiction?

Charles McGrath, writer at large for The New York Times and former editor of the paper's Book Review, wrote in a Times column entitled "What Johnny Won't Read" that NEA researchers could have reached the same conclusions "simply by talking to a couple of observant booksellers." They would have learned, he wrote, "that book sales have been flat for the last several years, or at least they haven't kept pace with the growth of the population. They would have learned that women buy more books than men. And they would have learned -- or been able to guess -- that the more money you have, the more likely you are to spend some of it on books."

People in bookstores, McGrath continued, would have been able to correct what he terms "a perplexing methodological error." First, nonfiction is a very large part of the book market, and by defining literature as "any type of fiction, poetry, and plays," the NEA was confusing the issue. While all manner of romances, thrillers, westerns, and "presumably pornography" would be included, "Brian Greene's Fabric of the Cosmos and Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton" would not. Nor would "Plato's Republic, say or Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." He also pointed to books that "are shaping the national debate" about our presence in Iraq, such as Bob Woodward's, Plan of Attack and Richard A. Clarke's Against All Enemies as timely and important and "you'd think that the national endowment would give us a point or two for sitting down and spending some time with them."

A book must be an ice ax to break the seas frozen inside our soul. --Franz Kafka

Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, wrote about the Reading at Risk study in an Op Ed piece in the New York Times, and he concluded that readers are those "for whom life is an accrual of fresh experience and knowledge," whereas nonreaders are "those for whom maturity is a process of mental atrophy." An expert on depression, he finds that those who experience the "loneliness that comes of spending the day with a TV or a computer or a video screen" are more likely to be depressed than literary readers who, have an "entry into a dialogue; a book can be a friend, talking not at you, but to you. That the rates of depression should be going up as the rates of reading are going down is no happenstance." Solomon also connects a "lack of active engagement of adult minds" through the drop in reading, with escalating levels of Alzheimer's disease. Despite the large inherited and environmental components of the loss of brain function, "it seems that those who continue learning may be less likely to develop Alzheimer's."

More Literary Citizens Than Literate Ones?

In his online publication Publishers Lunch, Michael Cader wrote about the findings with a more upbeat view: "The NEA also notes that the percentage of literary readers sounds a lot better when you put it up against the pathetic levels of advanced literacy in the country. Cader notes one of the study's findings -- "Although 46.7 percent of the adult population read literature in 2002, a comparable percentage of adults may not have been capable of reading and understanding most novels, short stories, poetry, or plays" -- "rephrased, that means that a much larger percentage of people who have the competency to read literature are doing so."

Cader also pointed out that overall NEA "found that 56 percent of adults are reading books every year -- consistent with, or even better than, annual data from Ipsos. They found that spending on books actually stayed pretty darn steady; it comprised 5.7 percent of total recreation spending in 1990, and 5.6 percent in 2002. Naturally, men read less, and book reading correlates directly to income, education, and age (e.g., higher, more advanced, and older means more book reading). And "literary reading [is] clearly one of the nation's favorite pastimes…. Also, reading literature was still the fourth most popular leisure activity of the categories."

Too Many Writers …

In a humorous piece on the Reading at Risk findings on, the Web site of Minneapolis's Pioneer Press, columnist Laura Billings outlined some of her explanations for the diminishing number of readers. "Books are too big" due to shift in the role of editors from "a time when editors worked with authors to hone, shape, distill, crystallize, and cut the fat out of their stories," now "their main job seems to be getting the author on The View." She pointed out that the average length of a top 10 hardcover fiction bestseller is 384 pages, "more than twice the length of the Platonic Ideal of the Novel, The Great Gatsby." Billings did enjoy Bridget Jones's Diary and the sequel, but "What I don't enjoy is going to the 'new fiction' section of my local bookstore and finding six dozen books based on the very same premise, with designs as recognizable as Harlequins, hip renderings of Gen Xers in kitten heels looking for love and shopping at Prada."

She mentioned a survey done by a small publishing house two years ago: "It found that 81 percent of Americans believe they have a book in them, and that they ought to write it." At the same time, she quoted the NEA finding that only 57 percent of Americans read a book of any kind in the previous year. "Maybe," she concluded, "the best way to deal with the dwindling reading audience then is to appeal to our collective vanity as future authors. If you want us to read your book, you really ought to read someone else's first." -- Nomi Schwartz