A survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts has confirmed a trend that most book publishing industry members are well aware of: the percentage of Americans who read books has steadily declined over the last 20 years. The survey, which was released last week in a report entitled "Reading at Risk," found that 56.6% of adult Americans had read a book in the August 1, 2001— August 1, 2002 period, compared to 60.9% in 1992. Moreover, in the category focused on by the study—literary reading—the percentage of adults that read literature in 2002 was 46.7%, down from 54% in 1992 and 56.9% in 1982. (Literary reading is defined as all fiction works, including short stories, plays and poetry.)
In a press conference held at the New York Public Library July 8, NEA chairman Dana Gioia said, "Never in my career have I ever seen a report where there is no good news." The study, said Gioia, "quantifies the worst fears about the state of literacy in America." He added that the downward trends point to "an activity [literary reading] going out of existence." According to the report, since 1982 literary reading fell in virtually all groups and segments measured by the NEA, with reading down among all age groups, genders, education levels, income levels and races.
By age, the rate of decline is steepest among young adults, with the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds that read literature falling to 42.8% in 2002 from 59.8% in 1982. The percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds that read literature fell from 62.1% in 1982 (the highest percentage among all age groups recorded in 20 years) to 47.7% in 2002.
Although college graduates are still the most likely to read literature, the percentage of readers in that group fell to 66.7% in 2002 from 82.1% in 1982 and 74.6% in 1992. Only 37.7% of high school graduates read literature in 2002, compared to 54.2% in 1982 and 49% in 1992. And while women still read more literature than men, that percentage fell to 55.1% in 2002 from 63% in 1982. The study also found that only 37.6% of men read literature in 2002, down from 49.1% in 1982. The percentage of white Americans that read literature in 2002 was 51.4% in 2002, down from 59.8% in 1982, while 37.1% of African-Americans and 26.5% of Hispanics read literature in 2002. In 1982, those numbers were at 42.3% for African-Americans and 36.4% for Hispanics.
There is a silver lining in the breakdown by race. Although the percentage of Hispanics and African-Americans that read literature declined between 1982 and 2002, because of the increase in population, the actual number of those readers rose. The gain is particularly striking among Hispanics—the study found that the number of Hispanic adult readers totaled six million in 2002, up from 3.4 million in 1982 and 5.2 million in 1992. The number of adult African-Americans who read literature in 2002 was 8.8 million in 2002, up from 7.6 million in 1982 but down from 9.5 million in 1992.
Although the study was not designed to identify specific causes for the decline in reading, it does offer some suggestions. The study notes, for example, that the decline in reading correlates with increased use by the public of the Internet, DVDs, videogames and portable digital devices: "Literature now competes with an enormous array of electronic media. While no single activity is responsible for the decline in reading, the cumulative presence and availability of these alternatives have increasingly drawn Americans away from reading," the report states.
A second possible reason for the reading decline is demographic shifts. During the 20 years covered by the study, the number of Hispanics in the U.S. doubled and now represents 12.5% of the population. And although the number of Hispanic readers has increased, their literary reading rate was only half that of non-Hispanic whites, a factor that may have contributed to the lower reading rates for the whole population. Because of their increased presence in the population, the report says, arts agencies and policy makers "may want to target Hispanics for programs to raise literary reading rates."
As bad as the decline in reading is, Gioia said he doesn't think the problem is unsolvable. "It will take lots of people trying lots of things to arrest the trend," Gioia said. He noted that the NEA issued the report without any recommendations because he didn't want to make it seem that a federal agency was favoring any one approach to tackle the problem. The NEA does plan, however, to make the report "the focus of a national debate. We will go around the country presenting the report and bring it to the attention of the American public," he said. The "full Reading at Risk" report is available at www.arts.gov.