A couple of years ago the NEA produced a study entitled Reading at Risk which suggested literary reading among the US adult population was diminishing at a worrying rate. Last week they released a follow-up, entitled To Read or Not to Read; A Matter of National Consequence which suggests that not only is reading continuing to decline but that reading levels and abilities are following suit. I’m struggling to digest the 90-page report filled with tables and summary data but the claims being made for national consequences hinge on academic achievement, employability,and civic engagement.
I do wonder how accurately anyone answers questions about reading, it’s a form of automatic behavior many of us engage in without consideration of time costs so we might treat some of these data points with caution. However, the social desirability of reading might also inflate responses to some questions. Further, measures of reading ability are less prone to this type of error (though they have their own specific types) so it’s not easy to dismiss the final results, even if the tone of the report is somewhat sensational. But here’s some data points reported that are noteworthy:
-Percentage of adults read a work of literature (a novel, short story, playor poem) within the past year= 47%
-Literary reading declined in both genders, across all education levels, and all age groups, with declines steepest in young adults, and first year college students report extremely low levels of reading for pleasure (no mention of reading lists here!)
-More than half 17th-12th graders multitask while reading. The report calls them Generation M.
There’s a few hoary old chestnuts in the report, such as the suggestion that there are no studies yet which show if following hyperlinked information on screen has cognitive impact (hello! there’s 20 years of study on this!) but in general this is an exhaustive (and exhausting) effort. I’m not entirely comfortable with the links made between being a good reader and being a model citizen, attending jazz concerts, visiting museums and having a great job, but there is no doubt that reading is a profoundly important part of the human condition and we would do well to take note of the trends reported here. But, one must wonder, is literary reading (as defined by NEA) the real yardstick?