We find a slightly alarmist press release (there’s apparently ‘a national crisis’) from the National Endowment for the Arts reporting an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, and that less than half of adults are now reading literature. I’m not sure why anybody’s surprised, least of all the NEA, but this wasn’t news to me. What’s to blame for this decline?
“America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted,” according to Gioia. “As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.
“No single factor caused this problem. No single solution can solve it. But it cannot be ignored and must be addressed,” Gioia said.
So, they don’t know or they aren’t saying? I guess they didn’t want to say in the press release, but the study itself (PDF) has plenty of information. While they do say “the decline in reading correlates with increased participation in a variety of electronic media, including the Internet, video games, and portable
digital devices”, they also confess that “It is not clear from the SPPA data how much influence TV watching has on literary reading.”
It’s not all bleak…they do point out that creative writing among Americans is apparently up 30%, though attendance in creative writing classes is down by 2.2 million (way to compare apples to apples there, guys). I suspect that we can thank the Internet for both of those shifts.
Books are suffering the same fate as movies, computer games, music and other entertainment technologies: diversification of the marketplace. A hundred years ago, if you had any money and free time, what were your self-entertainment options: read or play music. Today, leisure time has increased, but the entertainment options have exploded. There are more content creators fighting for a slice of your leisure time than ever before. So, it’s no surprise that we’re reading fewer books or listening to less music.
In related news, 12.7% of all books bought in 2003 were sold over the Web.