When Lynne Sharon Schwartz published her delightful literary autobiography in 1997, she went ironic with the title Ruined by Reading. But there would have been nothing ironic about the NEA calling its recent study Ruined by Not Reading. According to the study, released last week by chairman Dana Gioia (and actually titled To Read or Not to Read; see p. 4), the current reading experience in America is very different from the one lived by Schwartz, who learned to read at the age of three and devoted most of her life to the pursuit of narrative.
The survey's discoveries about American reading habits, particularly in young people, are worrisome. Just a few examples: the percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period (from 9% in 1984 to 19% in 2004). Watching television eclipses reading as a favorite leisure-time activity for men and women of all ages, but for 15—24-year-olds, reading is particularly avoided. On average, these teens and young adults spend less than 10 minutes a day on voluntary reading. (And it's not clear from the study whether that means reading actual books—how long does it take to read, say, People magazine?)
So far, so depressingly unsurprising. Anybody with a child or anybody who's ever wandered through a bookstore could have told the NEA that young people are spending a lot more time on the Internet than they are between the pages of books these days. Likewise, that a lot of college seniors—who, let's face it, are busy wading through required reading lists composed by their professors—read little or nothing for pleasure. But there was also at least one piece of good news: voluntary reading has shown no decline for nine-year-olds, and reading test scores for that group are at an all-time high. (But even that silver lining has a cloud: what happens after nine to make reading scores and habits among 17-year-olds nosedive? I bet most of us could hazard a pretty intelligent guess, involving hormones, pop culture and the I-word.)
But what the survey is relatively short on, of course, is solutions—which Gioia acknowledges. Trying, admirably, to avoid portraying the study as “an elegy for the bygone days of print culture,” he suggested to us that the solution calls for a combination of government, education and general culture; Gioia admits a wish to clone Oprah. It's no secret that books have been “marginalized” in our culture, but it also seems that stressing the social aspects of reading—think book clubs—has begun to make inroads. This idea has surely also been behind the Big Read, which has met with varying degrees of success.) For kids, he suggests, we particularly need to get out the idea that reading is cool—even if, of course, the surest way to kill that is for a bunch of grownups to tell them so. Everyone, after all, “likes to read what their friends are reading,” Gioia said.
Du-uh, as my 13-year-old son would likely grunt. The boy who famously told me, “I don't like to read except when I like the book,” recently asked for all three titles in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight/New Moon/Eclipse trilogy, not because he saw a review or (of course) because I might stupidly have mentioned them. It turns out that a lot of kids in his class are fans of the books. The fact that some of those “fans” are also girls, I'm sure, has nothing to do with it.
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