Are We Really Reading More?

By Casey Lynn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

readingA new report from the National Endowment for the Arts says that reading is on the rise in the U.S. This is apparently the first rise after a quarter-century of decline. The literary reading rates among adults in the U.S. dropped gradually from 56% in 1982 to 46% in 2002, only to jump to 50% this past year. This increase has been across all age groups, ethnic, and demographic categories–but the biggest increase is among those 18 to 24 years old, a group that has previously shown the biggest declines.

Well, this can only be good news. After all, more reading is “more better,” if only because it will keep us from becoming too saturated in chat-speak and the concise, artless prose of text messaging. But does this survey really mean anything? Don’t break out the champagne to toast the country’s literacy just yet; there seem to be some problems with interpreting this report too optimistically:

(1) An education professor at University of Michigan pointed out to the N.Y. Times that the rise is probably just a blip; trend data shows regular increases and decreases in literacy.

(2) The survey also showed that the proportion of adults who said that they’ve read a book that was not required for school or work has actually decreased. So, for example, if more people are going to college, then maybe the increase represents more 18-year-olds admitting to reading The Great Gatsby for English 101 even if they don’t crack open another book all year.

(3) The survey doesn’t distinguish between those who take the year to read the complete works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and those who read a single poem. Moreover, the 2008 survey included Internet reading, so someone is also included if they’ve read a single piece of Harry Potter fan fiction. (Though unfortunately, I don’t think that reading this blog counts as “literary.” Though there may be an argument for the quest descriptions in World of Warcraft…)

Still, there is something to be said for the effect of Harry Potter and Twilight on the 18-to-24 crowd. You might think that reading about sparkly vampires is useless, but hey, at least it’s reading.

Of course, despite all this trend data–rise or fall or whatever–it still floors me to think that only half of American adults read anything fitting into the categories of “novel, short story, poem, or play” over the course of an entire year.

Do these numbers surprise anyone else? How much do you read?

[Image Source: Flickr]


10 Responses to Are We Really Reading More?

  1. I read allot compared to 2 years ago. Last year alone I read 80 books. In the first 2 weeks of January I read 3 books, so at this rate I'll be reading another 80 before the end of the year.

  2. I'm a 22 year old, and I definitely see a decline in reading in my generation. I try to do my part by reading regularly. I see a lot of the 18-24 year old crowd using text-speak in real conversation or even in notes and essays for school.

  3. When I was in my early teens, I finished a different book just about every day. Now, though, I mostly read blogs. I did read Twilight last week (and then ordered the boxset of all 4 so I can keep reading them for only $45 on Amazon…and yeah, that's for 4 hardcovers O_O). Before that…last books I read were Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence and part of his The Satanic Verses and Max Brooks's World War Z in July and August.

  4. Great points here. I'm always surprised to find out how many of the smart people that I know are people who "don't read". What I've discovered is that they read – they read magazines, alternative newspapers, and a whole lot of stuff on the Internet. They just don't get books and read them. As someone who reads books daily, I think that's a shame. But I'm glad to know that there are other mediums out there (some of which really do have great writing) that are being read by those people who just don't find themselves drawn to books.

    • Well, I can see "smart people" not reading as common trait. Asperger's syndrome for example or people who "suffer" a degree of ADD can be very smart, but can be very distracted from picking up a book.

      Plus, being a avid reader isn't a requirement for intelligence. I mean I hated reading growing up, but I was programming in BASIC before second grade.

  5. My father on the other hand can't read novels he claims, he tried to read Ender's Game but couldn't get past page five while he has all the time in the world and a love for science. I finished it in two days.

    I'm in highschool and I would actually like to read more than I do right now. I read about three or four books a month but school reading certainly keeps me busy, I don't count reading for class as reading.

  6. I have been a reader all my life (I am just shy of being 60), as have been most members of my family.

    Even though I am still working, and functioning as newsletter editor for two computer user groups, I still average about three books a week, as well as the daily newspaper, several magazines, and hundreds of RSS feeds a day.

    I would rather read than watch the "boob tube", and only watch movies when I just want to vegetate, or am so sick that I can not concentrate on anything.

    I usually read fiction, in most genre, and occasionally non-fiction, mostly as related to technology or writing.

    My eight year old granddaughter has been reading since she was around two years old. In fact two years ago while we were in a motor home in Homestead, FL, for the NASCAR races, she picked up a Nora Roberts paperback that my wife was reading, read a couple of pages and handed it back to "Nani" saying "This is OK, but I think it is a little too old for me".

  7. My parents were avid readers, and passed the love along to my sisters and I. I read a lot in high school and college – several books each month, amounting to multiple dozens each year – but as I have aged and the obligations of daily living increased, I have read less and less. I keep a reading wish list to which I add the interesting titles I hear about (NPR shows are a good source of material).

    Sadly, none of my nieces and nephews have shown an interest in reading. Only the Harry Potter books seemed to appeal. Both of my sisters were puzzled about their children, but unlike our childhood home they did not maintain a good bookshelf stuffed with interesting material. Maybe that's the difference – the big screen tv wins out over the library?

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