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Reading at risk

19 July 2004

Reading at Risk, a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts involving 17,000 people, paints a dismal picture of a decline in reading in the US. Defining 'literary reading' as novels, short stories, plays and poetry read not for work or study, i.e. leisure reading of fiction, the study shows a sharp and continuing decline amongst all sectors of the population.

Less than half of American adults now read literature, but the steepest and most worrying decline is amongst younger age groups, where the decline is 28%. There has been an overall decline of ten percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a worrying loss of 20 million readers. The rate of decline is increasing and has tripled in the last decade.

NEA Chair Dana Gioia said 'This report documents a national crisis. Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity - and all the diverse benefits it fosters - impoverishes both cultural and civic life. '

Women read literature more than men do, but only just over a third of adult males now read literature. As previous studies have shown, education is the most significant factor affecting this. Depressingly, reading is also an indicator of participation in other activities: for instance literary r readers are almost four times as likely to visit an art museum and more than two and a half times as likely to do voluntary work.

There isn't much good news here, but it should be noted that spending on books has stayed pretty steady over this period, suggesting people are buying books but not necessarily reading them. Also, reading is still the fourth most important leisure activity amongst those surveyed. Looking at literacy figures, it seems that a much larger percentage of the people who have the reading competency to read literature are doing so.

But in spite of these caveats it's a pretty grim picture and Gioia is right to say that 'America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted... No single factor caused this problem. No single solution can solve it. But it cannot be ignored and must be addressed.'