Some good news about book readership

Diane Evans (MCT)

The National Endowment for the Arts has a new take on reading in America with the release of its new report titled "Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy."

In the preface, outgoing NEA Chairman Dana Gioia calls the findings a "turning point in recent American cultural history,'' saying cultural decline is not inevitable and he could find no happier way to end his tenure at NEA. The report is so far afield from NEA's gloomy "Reading at Risk" report five years ago, that even Gioia acknowledges that "one might ask if the new data are too good to be true."

He says no, because the sample size of the study is roughly 20 times that of an average media poll. Plus, the NEA's questionnaire has stayed consistent since the survey began 26 years ago.

If that's the case, then what happened? In 2002, fewer than 47 percent of the American adults reported reading novels, short stories, poems and plays during the previous year. Now, in this survey, the percentage was over half.

Increases were reported across almost all groups measured: Whites, blacks, Hispanics, men, women, young people, old people. In the most dramatic change, young adults, ages 18 to 24, went from reporting a 20 percent decline in reading in 2002 to a 21 percent increase in 2008.

The report offers little by the way of explanation, other than to speculate on possibilities, such as heightened efforts by teachers and librarians, and the rise in community reading programs such the NEA's Big Read.

In addition, there is also the not-so-inspiring news in the report that well over half of the American adults don't read books unless they are required for work or school. That percentage increased in this latest survey.

Gioia is right that cultural decline is not inevitable. We'd be a hopeless culture if we thought so. Yet if there is a new chapter, it's a first chapter that will need to be validated by future studies. Otherwise, this new report will be little more than a nice send-off for Gioia.

In his concluding remarks, Gioia warns we should not be complacent. He is right, because whatever gains we can claim now must be measured against years of studies showing declines relating to education and American competitiveness. Even now, as this glowing report comes out, other equally significant studies show cause for concern.

One recent report, from the Benton Foundation, found that only 7 percent of U.S. college students now major in math or science, and that if current trends continue, more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers will call Asia "home" by 2010. That's only next year.

I have two daughters who are young adults, one 18 and the other 21. Both read quite a bit while they were home from college over the holidays. I loved seeing them both sacked out on the couch, one with Harry Potter in hand, and the other a Stephenie Meyer fantasy/mystery.

Great as a get away from serious studies. But hardly enough alone.





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