Friday, November 23, 2007

Is the Sky Falling?

This week, the National Endowment for the Arts issued its latest report on Americans' reading habits, ominously titled "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence" [PDF]. The report compiles data from studies conducted by various government, academic and business surveys, and the results, NEA chairman Dana Gioia says, "are startling in their consistency. All of the data combine to tell the same story about American reading."

"To Read or Not to Read" finds that Americans - particularly younger Americans - are spending less time reading. In a 2002 survey, 48% of people in the 18-24 age bracket said they read no books not required for work or school, a 7% decline over the previous decade. In 1984, just 9% of 17-year olds said they never read for pleasure; by 2004 that number had risen to 19%, almost matching the decline in the percentages who said they read almost every day.

A fair portion of this trend seems entirely attributable to the simple diversification of activities. So much now occupies every second of young peoples' lives that it's hardly surprising that pleasure reading has declined. Very few if any colleges want to know how many books you read in your spare time last year, but they do want to know how heavily involved you were with various clubs and sports and volunteer activities. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Reading is no longer the default recreational activity for many young people, who now have the vast reaches of the Internet to explore, or their iPods to organize, or ... you get the idea. There's simply too much going on.

More reading is now taking place in different ways than before - look, you're reading this blog, which the NEA apparently doesn't consider reading at all. And I'm writing it, which means I'm not reading either (the six or seven articles plus the NEA report I read just to prepare the composition of this post? they don't count). The statistics may be scary, but they fail to accurately capture the whole picture, and they're overly simplistic. Troubling trends in attendance at cultural events, volunteerism and voting patterns cannot be solved by just encouraging people to read more books; there must be a concomitant shift in mindset. As Timothy Shanahan, past president of the International Reading Association and a professor of urban education and reading put it in an interview with the NYTimes, "I don’t think the solutions are as simple as a report like this might be encouraging folks to think they might be."

There's another important aspect of all this too, and I'm glad Pat Schroeder - president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers - mentioned it in the Boston Globe article on the report. She "said part of the problem could be that adults can make children feel that reading is a duty. A common complaint she hears from children and young adults is that few books relate to their lives or interests." Children (heck, even adults) have to want to read - they should be given every opportunity, lots of options, and the freedom to choose their own books (or blogs, or audio-books, or whatever!) at their own pace, but they should not ever be guilted or forced or cajoled into reading.

I think those of us who do read have a duty here as well, and that is to talk about what we learn, experience, enjoy about the universes we travel to when we read. Share with your friends, in a casual way, what you're reading - ask what they like, and see if there's anything you can recommend. Loan a copy of your favorite novel to a coworker or a classmate if you think they might enjoy it as much as you did ... but then let them read it in their own way.

The sky's not falling, but the stars are realigning, and things will never be the way they were. That doesn't mean we shrug our shoulders and huff about in high dudgeon, it means we get to work and make the best of it.

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