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Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline, Says NEA Report

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July 15-31, 2004 Edition

Literary Reading

in Dramatic Decline,

Says NEA Report

NEW YORK, NY/07/08/04—Literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature, according to a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) survey released July 8. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America reports drops in all groups studied, with the steepest rate of decline—28 percent—occurring in the youngest age groups.

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 findings were announced by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia during a news conference at the New York Public Library.

“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.”

While all demographic groups showed declines in literary reading between 1982 and 2002, the survey shows some are dropping more rapidly than others. The overall rate of decline has accelerated from 5 to 14 percent since 1992.

Women read more literature than men do, but the survey indicates literary reading by both genders is declining. Only slightly more than one-third of adult males now read literature. Reading among women is also declining significantly, but at a slower rate.

Literary reading declined among whites, African Americans and Hispanics. Among ethnic and racial groups surveyed, literary reading decreased most strongly among Hispanic Americans, dropping by 10 percentage points.

By age, the three youngest groups saw the steepest drops, but literary reading declined among all 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.

The rate of decline in literary reading is calculated by dividing the percentage point drop by the original percentage of literary readers.

Reading also affects lifestyle, the study shows. Literary readers are much more likely to be involved in cultural, sports and volunteer activities than are non-readers. For example, literary readers are nearly 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. People who read more books tend to have the highest level of participation in other activities.

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. By contrast, more than five times as many respondents with a graduate school education—74 percent—read literary works.

Family income also affects the literary reading rate, though not as strongly as education. 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 the highest income group—those with family income of $75,000 or more.

According to the survey, the most popular types of literature are novels or short stories, which were read by 45 percent or 93 million adults in the previous year. Poetry was read by 12 percent or 25 million people, while just 4 percent or seven million people reported having read a play.

Contrary to the overall decline in literary reading, the number of people doing creative writing increased by 30 percent, from 11 million in 1982 to more than 14 million in 2002. However, the number of people who reported having taken a creative writing class or lesson decreased by 2.2 million during the same time period.

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. Adults who did not watch TV in a typical day are 48 percent more likely to be frequent readers—consuming from 12 to 49 books each year—than are those who watched one to three hours daily.

“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.

“No single factor caused this problem. No single solution can solve it. But it cannot be ignored and must be addressed,” Gioia said.

Reading at Risk presents the results from the literature segment of the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002 at the NEA’ s request. The survey asked more than 17,000 adults if—during the previous 12 months—they had read any novels, short stories, poetry or plays in their leisure time, that were not required for work or school. The report extrapolates and interprets data on literary reading and compares them with results from similar surveys carried out in 1982 and 1992.

Reading At Risk can be downloaded as a PDF document. Hard copies can also be requested free of charge through the Arts Endowment’s web site.