On Reading

We hear from every quarter in this country that no one reads anymore, that television and now the Web have all but killed off the pleasures of the page. We bemoan the closing of one bookstore after another and the alleged sharp decline in literary reading documented in the recent National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report.

However, I am not entirely convinced by all these obituaries for reading, especially the widely cited NEA analysis. The study reports the findings of a large sample survey of over 17,000 individuals conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002. The survey was designed to learn more about public participation in the arts, including the extent of literary reading in this country.

To measure literary activity, individuals were asked to indicate whether or not they had read at least one literary work during the past year. A “literary work” was defined as a novel, short story, play, or work of poetry. A reported decline in literary reading of 10% (56.9% to 46.7%) from 1982 to 2002 was the finding that aroused the greatest concern. This trend was observed for all the demographic groups that were studied— gender, ethnicity, educational level, and age, with the steepest decline of 28% reported for those in the youngest age group, those between 18 and 24.

In my view, the study is flawed in several respects. The definition of literary work is unnecessarily narrow, as a person who has read a memoir, collection of essays, or historical biography is not counted as a literary reader. Similarly, a person who has read the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in a Russian literature course is also excluded from this group. Moreover, the measurement procedure does not distinguish between various types of literary works—reading a book of Ogden Nash poems is counted equivalent to reading Tennyson, Proust, or Keats.

In truth, as documented in the report, a significant amount of reading takes place in this country, as almost 60% of the US population indicated they have engaged in some form of literary activity during 2002. Moreover, given the rise in the population since 1982 (the year of the previous NEA survey), more people are reading literature today in terms of absolute numbers than in 1982, 205 million compared to 168 million, values that cannot be readily discounted.

In a word, the implications of the NEA report may not be quite as dire as its authors imply. Perhaps individuals are reading more literary works on the Internet or in an e-book version. Perhaps they are reading other literary genres, such as biography or political commentary or listening to literary works on tape, or simply spending more time reading periodicals and newspapers that on some accounts have the same benefits as the novels, short stories, plays, or works of poetry measured in the survey.

Also, 2002 may not have been a representative year, as the profound effects of the attack on this nation in September of the preceding year were still very salient. Sampling year-to-year trends, rather than ten-year periods, would have provided a much clearer picture of the trends in literary activity. Clearly, we have an incomplete picture at this time of the evolving character of reading as the new form of literacy—digital literary—begins to grow in popularity and we begin to understand its effects on literary in general. See for example the analysis by Christine Rosen, People of the Screen at http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/people-of-the-screen.