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]

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