Sunday, January 18, 2009

NEA: People are Reading Again

The National Endowment for the Arts released its latest report on Americans' reading habits this week. The 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, administered in May as part of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, drew more than 18,000 responses, and the preliminary results are reported in Reading on the Rise [16-page PDF].

For the first time since the survey began in 1982 this year's findings show a modest uptick in the number of Americans who reported having engaged in "literary reading" (novels, short stories, poems, or plays in print or online) over the last year (from 46.7% in 2002 to 50.2% this year). Raw numbers of readers are also up by 16.6 million to 112.8 million in 2008. Outgoing NEA head Dana Gioia trumpets what he calls a "particularly inspiring transformation," a 21% increase from 2002 in the number of 18-24 year-olds self-reporting engagement with literary reading. Most other age groups also reported increases, as did all major ethnic groups, both men and women, and all education levels.

Other notable figures from the survey include the finding that 84% of adults who read literature online also read books, confirming a trend many of us had suspected based on anecdotal evidence.

These numbers are cause for at least mild celebration, but there are less positive figures lurking beneath (and also, as I'll discuss momentarily, some reasons to be less than jubilant about the overall findings). Reading rates of both poetry and drama continue to decline sharply (down 31% and 28% from 2002 respectively), and even with the modest increases shown here only a hair less than half of all Americans said they hadn't engaged in any form of literary reading in the last year.

The report has been widely praised, including by Nick Basbanes (who has the same problem I do with the idea that reading non-fiction somehow "doesn't count"): "While I have no complaint whatsoever with this conceptually - read what you like, as far as I'm concerned, it's all the same to me - but to suggest that if what you like happens to be, let's say, a wonderful biography of Charles Darwin or Emily Dickinson, or a penetrating history of the Great Depression, or a trenchant work of art criticism, then it doesn't track, according to this paradigm, even if the name of the author you admire is David McCullough or Barbara Tuchman, you still do not qualify as a 'literary reader.' So does that make a person who prefers nonfiction to fiction any less of a reader than someone who devours romance paperbacks they pick up at the supermarket, or more to the point, does that offer a balanced report card of a nation's reading habits? I don't believe so, which is why I think these surveys should look more thoroughly at the kinds of books that people read on a regular basis, and not just as a subset of what's passing out there these days as 'literary' works."

Carolyn Kellogg also has some concerns about the report, including a correlation made by Gioia between "offline pro-reading programs and increased reading rates." This, Kellogg writes, "seems tenuous. What other factors were considered? Did libraries expand, increasing access to books? Did people have more leisure time from 2002 to 2008, more time to sit and read?"

But Caleb Crain has the most striking and I think appropriate criticisms of Reading on the Rise, in a post he titled "Why I Remain Pessimistic." He notes that while the numbers have risen, they're still lower than they were in 1982, 1985 or 1992, and that even these modest increases may be off based on self-reporting "fudge factors," combined with the fact that the 2008 survey was administered in a different month (May, rather than August) and that the 2002 findings included the period immediately following 9/11, which presumably threw everything a bit off kilter, including reading habits. Crain: "If you look at the NEA's graph of the percentage of adults who read literature between 1982 and 2008, the outlier isn't 2008. It's 2002. In fact, if you ignore the 2002 results, you're looking at a gentle but almost uncannily straight descending line. One possible explanation of the graph above: Reading has been declining in America for decades, but the 2002 results were worse than they ought to have been, because in the aftermath of September 11 the nation was panicked out of its usual literary diversions. Between 2002 and 2008, the interruption of 9/11 corrected itself, and many people returned to literature, but not all of them."

I agree with Caleb's words of caution here, and I think it's probably wise to wait for the full report on this data, to be published later in 2009. Positive preliminary findings these are, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Those of us who value reading for its own sake still have much work to do and many people to convince.

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