Survey Says More Americans Are Reading

January 19, 2009 10:58 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
For the first time since 1982, more adults over 18 are reading for the first time. But critics disagree on why the numbers have risen or whether the findings really matter.

“Reading on the Rise”

According to “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,” a new report based on U.S. Census Bureau data from 2008 conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, the proportion of adults over 18 who have read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the past year has gone up, as well as “literary reading” in all age groups, ethnic and demographic categories.

“There has been a measurable cultural change in society’s commitment to literary reading,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “In a cultural moment when we are hearing nothing but bad news, we have reassuring evidence that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable.”

A few years ago, the agency inspired fierce public debate when it released a report titled “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” which found that fewer than half of adults read novels, short stories, plays or poetry.
Gioia says that the rise can be attributed to “The Big Read,” the NEA’s community-based literary initiative, as well as Oprah Winfrey’s book club, popular book series such as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” and the individual efforts of educators, librarians, parents and civic leaders.

But Elizabeth Birr Moje, an education professor at the University of Michigan, mentions other factors such as the need for escape during the poor economy, and also noted that the findings may not say much about anything. “It’s just a blip,” Moje said to The New York Times. “If you look at trend data, you will always see increases and decreases in people’s literate practices.”

Gioia doesn’t attribute the rise in literary reading to Internet reading, which was included in the 2008 survey, but Owen Thomas at Valleywag calls him a “Luddite” for denying its role in aiding educators and librarians in encouraging students to read. “The Internet has restored reading and writing (if not fancy poetry) as a normal everyday activity for millions. There’s some good news for them, and others who care to dream that the heavily textual medium of the Internet might actually promote literacy: Gioia is resigning his post later this month.”

Reactions: Does reading really matter?

The significance of the NEA’s findings depends on how you think about reading, says David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times. “I’m not so sure reading really was in crisis—any more than it ever has been. Laments over the death of reading are as old as mass literacy; ever since we began to consider culture as a social value, we’ve fixated on the way it falls apart. But what is it exactly we’re lamenting?” The report notes that the number of “literary readers,” has grown, but Ulin argues that this category, and the idea that those who read make better citizens, is elitist, and concludes that the NEA’s latest report is more “self-congratulatory than persuasive.”

David Harsanyi of also criticizes the notion that all reading is good for you: “Reading, in and of itself, holds no extraordinary significance—or no more than watching a smart television show (and fortunately, there are many of them around these days) or surfing the Internet. In fact, one could argue that by picking up a heartbreaking work of staggering garbage, such as ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ you can effectively knock 20 points off your IQ.”

In December, before the NEA released its survey, Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal that 2008 was a year in which she read an unusual amount, and even predicted that she and the country as a whole would continue to read more in the future: “I suspect reading is about to make a big comeback in America, that in fact we're going to be reading more books in the future, not fewer. It is a relatively inexpensive (libraries, Kindle, Amazon), peaceful and enriching activity. And we're about to enter an age of greater quiet. More people will be home, not traveling as much to business meetings or rushing out to the new jobsite. A lot of adults are going to be more in search of guidance and inspiration. The past quarter century we've had other diversions, often expensive ones—movies, DVDs, Xboxes. Books will fit the quieter future.”

Related Topic: E-book readers move into next generation


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