Reading on the Rise

The National Endowment for the Arts has released a new survey with the exciting news that “literary” reading in the United States has gone up 3.5 percent over the past seven years, an encouraging disclosure that reverses a trend first identified in 1982, and supported by findings in several subsequent reports.

Aptly titled Reading on the Rise--the last report in 2002 was called Reading at Risk--the new survey shows the most dramatic improvement among young adults aged 18-24, with a 9 percent spike over the previous period. “This jump,” according to the report, “reversed a 20 percent decline in the 2002 survey, the steepest rate of decline since the NEA survey began.” That study also showed that adult readers had fallen from 54 percent to 46.7percent.

Among ethnic groups and minorities, reading has also shown dramatic increases among Hispanics and African-Americans, and for the first time in the quarter-century history of the periodic survey, “literary reading” has increased among both men and women.

This is all splendid, of course, and I embrace it with great pleasure, though I do have one quibble, the same one I had when the last survey was released seven years ago, that involving the murky matter of what, exactly, constitutes “literary reading.”  By the definition offered by the NEA, a person can be defined as a “literary reader” if he or she reads “novels, short stories, poems or plays” of any kind--fictional works and works of the imagination, in other words--and this includes every conceivable genre in addition to the kinds of “serious” works that we typically regard as being literary, be they mystery, horror, fantasy, whatever.

While I have no complaint whatsoever with this conceptually-read what you like, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all the same to me--but to suggest that if what you like happens to be, let’s say, a wonderful biography of Charles Darwin or Emily Dickinson, or a penetrating history of the Great Depression, or a trenchant work of art criticism, then it doesn’t track, according to this paradigm, even if the name of the author you admire is David McCullough or Barbara Tuchman, you still do not qualify as a “literary reader.” So does that make a person who prefers nonfiction to fiction any less of a reader than someone who devours romance paperbacks they pick up at the supermarket, or more to the point, does that offer a balanced report card of a nation’s reading habits? I don’t believe so, which is why I think these surveys should look more thoroughly at the kinds of books that people read on a regular basis, and not just as a subset of what’s passing out there these days as “literary” works.

Other than that, how can you knock a finding that discloses a “slight majority” of American adults--113 million people--now reading literature? All in all, this is a great report for Dana Gioia, the outgoing chairman of the NEA, whose Big Read initiative has brought reading programs to millions of people throughout America. They’ve been a stunning success.
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