NEW YORK – “Reading on the rise” declares a new government study, which reports a surprising and welcome increase in the number of adults who recently read a novel, short story, play or other work of literature.
But the study also suggests that not every person who reads necessarily wants to.
According to “Reading on the Rise,” issued a week ago by the National Endowment for the Arts, just over half of the people surveyed 18 or older read some kind of literature in 2008, up from 46.7 percent in 2002, when the number had dropped by seven percentage points over the previous decade. NEA chairman Dana Gioia called the results “astonishing” and an “important new cultural trend.”
According to the survey, which reflects both online works and paper texts, reading rates increased for Blacks, Hispanics and Whites, for men and for women, for all levels of education and across virtually all ages. Reading among 18-to-24 year olds jumped from 42.8 in 2002 to 51.7 percent last year.
For much of the decade, Gioia and the NEA have warned of a crisis in literacy and have implemented numerous programs to encourage reading. In a preface to the new report, released shortly before Gioia steps down after heading the endowment for seven years, he cites a nationwide effort and says the results demonstrate that “our faith in positive social and cultural change was not misplaced.”
But the preface does not mention a countertrend: a drop among people not obligated to read. Adults who read books of any kind fiction or nonfiction, online or on paper that were not assigned by a teacher or employer dropped from 56.6 percent of adults in 2002 to 54.3 percent last year. The fall was greatest among those younger than 55.
And while the number of adults who say they read a non-required book is 3.5 million higher than in 2002, the report notes that that the total adult population increased by 19 million, meaning an increase in the number of people who didn’t voluntarily read books of 15.5 million, a huge disparity confirmed by NEA research director Sunil Iyengar.
Gioia believes the NEA report is essentially positive, if only because good news about reading is so rare, but he adds that “we’re still in a culture in which all kinds of reading are under pressure” from other forms of leisure and entertainment.
The NEA chair, himself a published poet, doesn’t have a definitive answer to the large gap between voluntary readers and reading overall. He speculates, “just a hypothesis,” about a large subgroup of “shallow readers,” people who feel compelled to take on a book for a class or a reading program but are not inspired to finish the text or to read independently.
“We have so many of these programs around the country, and I always tell our people that we can’t expect to make permanent readers out of everyone,” he says.
“So have we become a nation of Lionel Trillings”? asks Gioia, referring to the late and supremely erudite literary critic. “The answer is absolutely not yet.”
The NEA report, based on a sample of more than 18,000 adults, is based on data gathered in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau.
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