“The purpose of thinking about culture is usually to get depressed,” said Dana Gioia [pictured], chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, at the American Enterprise Institute. Gioia was discussing the results of a twenty-year NEA study on the participation of Americans in the arts. The news Gioia found particularly depressing revealed that Americans are reading fewer books each year.
The Reading at Risk study surveyed 17, 135 Americans across America—the sample was representative of the country’s demographic make-up. The decline in literary reading affects all demographics. “[We need] to make a national issue of it,” Gioia said. Literary reading refers to novels, short stories, poetry, and drama.
While the number of literary readers has remained constant since 1982—96 million—fewer Americans, as a percentage, are reading. Currently, not quite 47% of Americans admit to engaging in literary reading in the past year. In 1992, 54% did, and in 1982, 57% did. Men read significantly less than women, 38 % to 55%, and whites read more than blacks and Hispanics. The decline occurs in all age groups, with the most significant declines coming among young adults.
Total book reading also has declined—nearly 57% of Americans have engaged in book reading in the past year. The 1992 results confirm that more than half of adults did not read any book during the year. Total book reading includes books such as diet and travel guides, as well has biography, history, and other more serious genres.
The significance of this decline has implications beyond the education of Americans. The evidence from the NEA study shows a correlation between reading and the culture and character of Americans. “[The decline] of book reading parallels an erosion in civic life,” Gioia said.
Literary readers are more active in civic life than non-literary readers. The statistics reveal a large segment of society that has effectively isolated itself. The NEA study found:
- Forty-three percent of literary readers and 17% of non-literary readers volunteer or perform charity work.
- Forty-four percent of literary readers and 12% of non-literary readers visit art museums.
- Forty-nine percent of literary readers and 17% of non-literary readers attend performing arts events.
- Forty-five percent of literary readers and 27% of non-literary readers attend sporting events.
Television watching for the two groups is nearly equal. Non-literary readers watch, on average, one more show a day than literary readers.
The culprit of this decline in reading, as Gioia and others suggest, is the increasingly large role electronics plays in the lives of Americans. “We have now hit the point where there are so many electronic possibilities,” Gioia said. “Since 1990, the percentage of household spending on electronics has quadrupled while spending on books has not changed.” A 1999 study found that American households with children have 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players, and one computer.
The statistical trends indicate that reading will continue to decline among Americans, particularly among young Americans. Even among the educated classes, reading has lost its luster. “I do see the first generation of college and graduate school [students] who is proud of not reading,” Gioia said. A new direction in education may be necessary to revive reading. “The purpose [of education] is not to produce entry-level workers,” Gioia said.
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.