Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 10: August 2004


The Reading Disaster (or Not)

Walt Crawford

You can hardly have missed the report. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) says that only 47% of Americans read “literature” in 2002—a drop of 7% from 1992. “Those reading any book at all in 2002 fell to 57%, down from 61%,” according to Hillel Italie’s July 7 AP story. NEA chair Dana Gioia, a poet, called this shocking and “a reason for grave concern.”

The report blames the internet, TV and movies. Gioia: “I think what we’re seeing is an enormous cultural shift from print media to electronic media, and the unintended consequences of that shift.” Fair enough—but I’m not sure I buy this: “We have a lot of functionally literate people who are no longer engaged readers. This isn’t a case of ‘Johnny Can’t Read,’ but ‘Johnny Won’t Read.’”

I’m not sure what Gioia thinks Johnny’s doing on the internet. It may not be “engaged” reading, but it sure is reading. By the way, “literature” includes westerns but not philosophy, history, or any nonfiction. “Literature” is poems, plays and narrative fiction. The 18-24 cohort shows the sharpest decline: 60% described themselves as reading “literature” in 1992, but only 43% did so in 2002.

The NEA has an odd way of stating numbers: “In 1992, 76.2 million adults in the United States did not read a book. By 2002, that figure had increased to 89.9 million.” Here’s another way of stating those facts: In 1992, 113.8 million adults in the United States read at least one book. By 2002, that number had changed to 125.2 million.

The first statement might reasonably be thought of as “a call to arms,” as Mitchell Kaplan of the American Booksellers Association says about the NEA survey. The second? It’s true that the number of book readers may be growing more slowly than the U.S. population as a whole—but to call that a “drop in reading” oversimplifies a complex situation.

Gioia adds another comment that I find bemusing: “There’s a communal aspect to reading that has collapsed and we need to find ways to restore it.” A communal aspect to reading, particularly reading book-length narrative? I would have said book reading is one of the most private, solitary pastimes available. But then, I’ve never been much for book clubs. Maybe I’m doing it wrong?

The study’s title is even more dramatic than the oddly stated numbers: Reading at Risk. Not “a bunch of young adults aren’t reading books, and that’s interesting,” but reading itself is “at risk.” The AP story even works in the dramatic fall in book sales in 2003. Remember? Book sales increased slightly in revenue but numbers sold declined—to the tune of one percent. Those few remaining readers in the U.S.—a mere 125 million adults plus some number of younger readers—managed to buy 2.22 billion (thousand million, for non-U.S. readers) books.

Don Wood forwarded a report to PUBLIB from PW Newsline referring to the “grim state of books and literature.” Grim. That goes along with reading being “at risk.” The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a long story with lots of unhappy quotes, including another one from Gioia: “The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture will study the pages of this report in vain.” More people are reading books now than did 10 years ago. That’s good news, given the amount of doom crying there’s been about attention spans and lack of interest in reading, even if the proportion of book readers has declined slightly. (Yes, I am calling 4% over ten years “slightly,” particularly given the increase in other demands for time and attention over that decade.)

The Chronicle’s Scott McLemee uses statistical manipulation to make that drop look even worse. He calls it “a decline of 7%”—and it’s true that 56.6% is 7% less than 60.9%. He also calls the drop in literary readers 14% by using the same percentage-of-percentage methodology.

Here’s where I think the NEA report goes off the deep end. In crying with alarm about declining literary reading among young readers it says, “Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.” I don’t know what to say about an assertion like that. It seems to say that, not only will the percentage of young adults who read literature continue to decline at an arithmetic-percentage rate, but those who do read now will stop reading as they get older. The 43% of people now 18 to 24 who read literature will, by the time they’re 68 to 74, have abandoned literature altogether, and nobody younger will be reading literature either. (Those kids who love Harry Potter will all have learned better, for example, and stop reading literature as soon as Harry graduates.)

Gioia starts out saying that the NEA “shouldn’t try to tell the culture what to do, or not to do.” But he certainly wants “the culture” to do something. He points out the report’s finding of high correlations between reading literature and attending museums, supporting the performing arts, and volunteering for charity organizations. “The decline that we see in reading has not only cultural consequences, but social and civic consequences that are very frightening for a democracy.” NEA doesn’t want to tell us what to do? “If literary intellectuals—writers, scholars, librarians, book people in general—don’t take charge of the situation, our culture will be impoverished. When you look at the figures for young readers, that says to me that we don’t have a lot of time.”

Librarians Comment

After the cries of alarm from NEA and the Chronicle, and various alarmed editorials and columns elsewhere (including a Newsweek piece that seems to blame the “decline” in reading on the huge increase in number of new book titles published each year), it’s been refreshing to see some reactions within the library community. Anne McVea used the subject heading “Logic at Risk” to note that people just might be reading nonfiction, magazines, newspapers—or even listening to audiobooks. “I don’t think I’m striking at the heart of literary culture if I read Churchill’s memoirs instead of Margaret Atwood.” Others also note that nonfiction books show growing circulation.

Miriam Bobkoff cited my citation of Bowker’s press release on the growing number of new titles—and that new title growth was greatest in juvenile and nonfiction areas (biography, history and religion). “Somebody is reading. Lots of somebodies…”

Finally, there was a thread on the ALA Council list, initiated by Michael Gorman—who thinks “the NEA is crying ‘wolf!’ in its report on reading.” Gorman notes that the major decline is in reading of “literature” and that poetry and plays (in written form) have always been specialized tastes. (For that matter, isn’t reading a play false to the form itself? Aren’t plays written to be performed?) Gorman also notes the lack of data to show an overall decline in reading—since there’s lots of reading outside the book (and especially the literary) market. Karen Schneider notes that she reads lots of material on the screen (“articles from many major newspapers) and listens to books. There was more to the thread (which probably continues—I don’t habitually track the list and picked up these items from Library Juice), including Nann Blaine Hilyard’s note that some “narrative nonfiction” should count as literature, even though it doesn’t as far as ALA is concerned.

Reading at Risk?

Do I believe the NEA report identifies a crisis? Not really. The NEA did not identify a decline in reading. It may have identified a decline in the percentage of adult Americans who read what the NEA identifies as literature. It’s possible (but a good deal less certain) that the NEA identified a slight decline in the percentage of adult Americans who read books in a given year. That one’s tougher. While 17,000 is generally a large enough sample for statistical accuracy, book reading (and reading in general) is such a wildly varied pastime for most people that a 4% “decline” over ten years may or may not have any significance, and may or may not even be real. (Actually, if the margin of error for the survey was 2%, then the survey shows nothing at all about book reading in general. There’s also a broader issue: Is it possible to do broadly-representative surveys of well-educated people these days? I know I don’t have the time or credulence for phone surveys at all; how about you?) But let’s assume for the moment that it is real—not that reading has declined (NEA demonstrated no such thing) but that a slightly smaller percentage of American adults read a book in 2002 than did in 1992.

The possibility that less than half the adult population reads literature each year fails to fill me with dismay. Can anyone identify any period prior to World War II in which a majority of the population of any nation read book-length literature each year? (I’m ignorant, so that’s a legitimate question, but my sense is that there have been very few periods prior to the last century or so in which more than half the adult population was even literate, much less had the leisure, income, and awareness to read book-length literature on a regular basis.)

I think the NEA’s probably wrong to blame the “decline” on television and the movies. Both have been around for quite a while. By most accounts, TV viewing is declining slightly. But then there’s the internet. In 1992, it’s fair to assume that most adult Americans spent little or no time on the internet, particularly outside work. By 2002, most Americans were acquainted with it and many—particularly those in the 18-24 age range—were spending a significant amount of leisure time on it. There were also a lot more magazines in 2002 than in 1992 and the widespread acceptance of DVDs had made movie watching at home both more engrossing and more active. Most of us had less time at home in 2002 than in 1992, given increased work hours.

The number of hours in a day has not increased. As more of us pay attention to health warnings about losing sleep, the number of available hours in a day may have declined slightly. Given the increase in things we want to do—areas to engage our intellects as well as provide pleasure—it’s only probable that some of us will devote less time to other areas. It’s hard to read a book while you’re doing something else; books—and particularly “literature”—don’t fit multitasking lifestyles very well.

Most activity on the internet involves reading and writing. Despite my general dislike for reading long text on a screen, I do a lot of it—skimming, perhaps, but still reading. Indirect internet reading—that is, reading longer items that I’ve printed out—certainly equals a book a month. I read a lot of magazines, certainly more than I did ten years ago. Add the newspaper and I’m pretty certain my overall reading has increased. Do I take as many books out from the library as I did 10 years ago? Probably not, but Cites & Insights is largely to blame for that. I almost never read plays (I’d rather see them performed). I almost never read poetry (and haven’t since college). I do read fiction, mostly when traveling, although it’s rarely “literary” fiction. I don’t claim to be typical in any regard.

Most public libraries in the U.S. show increased usage—and most public libraries do more than check out books, although books (fiction and nonfiction) continue to be the heart of good public libraries. Major bookstores are doing just fine, as are many well-run independents. When you’re talking about what Amazon does well or badly, it’s useful to note Amazon’s primary business: Selling books.

The sky has not fallen. I sincerely doubt that America will be a nation of aliterates in 50 years.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 10, Whole Issue 53, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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