Is Reading on the Rise?

I find it difficult to get too excited over the recent National Endowment of the Arts
(NEA) report that literary reading has increased in this country. The report cites evidence from the US Census Bureau Survey that literary reading rates among adults 18 and older increased from 46.7 percent in 2002 to 50.2 percent in 2008.

This contrasts with the sharp decline in literary reading reported in 2002 compared with the data recorded ten years earlier. However, the percent of adults reading literature is still not as high as it was in 1982 or 1992.

What is it that the survey actually measures? The key question upon which these data are based reads as follows:

During the past 12 months, did you read any a) novels or short stores; b) poetry; or c) plays?

A person was considered a “literary reader” if they responded positively to a, b or c! I find this a very loose definition of what constitutes a reader of literature. All you had to read during the twelve-month period the survey measured was a single poem. Does that make sense? Does it make any sense to group together a reader of a single poem with a reader of Anna Karenina or Moby Dick or both of them and then some? And does it make any sense to fail to distinguish a reader who read twelve novels, fifteen short stories and twenty poems with a person who read but a single piece of literature?

Moreover, as was true of the previous NEA Report, 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.

The latest study also differs from the previous ones in one key feature. Instead of surveying every adult in the household, as in previous years, the latest survey “sought proxy responses for spouses or partners from the initial adult interviewed in each household.” Do you know if your partner read any poems, novels or plays last year? All such estimates are subject to a good deal of error. Perhaps a proportion of the increase in literary reading in the latest survey can be attributed to such errors.

The same objection might be made for the self-reports of any adult in the sample. Who likes to report that they didn’t read a single poem, novel, or play last year? Not even one? To avoid the embarrassment of saying that, surely a person wouldn’t feel much compunction against saying they had read at least one.

Still, it is good to know that whatever the survey measures, at least, there has been no significant decline in what on other measures (bookstore closings, library circulation, newspaper reading, etc) suggests a very general decline in various forms of reading throughout this country.

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