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NEA Report Reveals Collapse of Advanced Literacy in U.S.

By Antoine du Rocher


NEW YORK, 8 July 2004—Today the United States National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a survey, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," reporting the dramatic decline of literary reading among American adults. According to the survey, fewer than half of American adults now read literature (narrative fiction, poetry, plays). The findings were announced today by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia during a news conference at the New York Public Library.

"America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted," according to Gioia. "As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.

The study also documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers. The rate of decline is increasing and, according to the survey, has nearly tripled in the last decade.

The overall rate of decline has accelerated from 5 to 14 percent since 1992. The steepest rate of decline, 28 percent, occurred in the youngest age groups. The rate of decline for the youngest adults, those aged 18 to 24, was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population.

Women read more literature than men do, and the rate of decline among women, while still significant, is less severe than that among men. Only 38 percent of adult males in America now read literature at all.

"This report documents a national crisis," Gioia said. "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."

The most important factor in literacy reading rates is education, the report shows. Only 14 percent of adults with a grade school education read literature in 2002, versus 74 percent of respondents with a graduate school education.

Family income also affects the literary reading rate. About one-third of the lowest income group, those with a family income under $10,000, read literature during the survey year, compared with 61 percent of those with family income of $75,000 or more.

The survey also studied the correlation between literary reading and other activities. For instance, literature readers watched an average of 2.7 hours of television each day, while people who do not read literary works watched an average of 3.1 hours daily.

Reading also correlates with other aspects of a more active lifestyle, with readers almost three times as likely to attend a performing arts event, almost four times as likely to visit an art museum, more than two-and-a-half times as likely to do volunteer or charity work, and over one-and-a-half times as likely to attend or participate in sports activities. And those who read the most had the highest level of participation in other activities.

Of course, Americans could actually be plunging through non-fiction tomes such as the most recent presidential memoir, boning up on the latest fad diet plan, or even trying to understand Islamic extremism and Euroskepticism. But this seems unlikely. More credible speculations include other pastimes that take up the time that could be devoted to reading: some passive, such as television, appeal to a broad audience; some marginally more active, such as computer gaming and internet usage, are enormously popular among the young. None of these, however, seem likely to broaden Americans' world view, or to foster engagement with others—whether imaginative, as through reading, or real, through the other activities in the public sphere that have fallen out of favor.

It would be too glib to attribute the (apparent) ease with which the abusers at Abu Ghraib dehumanized and brutalized their captives to insufficient time spent with the nineteenth century novel. But many in the United States now seem to find those who are foreign, or who disagree with them, incomprehensibly alien, evil, or even unreal; perhaps the key to this lies in the kinds of interaction fostered by those pastimes that have become most popular—other people either exist for their entertainment, when on television, or to be blown up, when in video games.

It's hard to imagine what could lead a population that's learned to crave quick, sensational entertainment from their media and their news back to the contemplative pleasures of the novel or other literary forms. In the near term, films like Fahrenheit 9/11, however shrill, sensationalist, and marred by Michael Moore's weakness for the cheap shot, seem to stand a marginally better chance of punching through the average non-reader's low threshold of distraction. Ultimately, though, it's hard to imagine a population becoming more thoughtful through watching more TV, playing more video games, and closing their borders.


Antoine du Rocher is a French cultural journalist and writer based in New York. He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.

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