Reading on the Rise for First Time Since 1982, NEA Reports

(By Susan Trigg)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 2009

There's good news about reading, says the National Endowment for the Arts in a report the agency is releasing today.

For the first time since the NEA began surveying American reading habits in 1982 -- and less than five years after it issued its famously gloomy "Reading at Risk" report -- the percentage of American adults who report reading "novels, short stories, poems or plays" has risen instead of declining: from 46.7 percent in 2002 to 50.2 percent in 2008.

"Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy" is the triumphant headline on the new report. In a preface, outgoing NEA Chairman Dana Gioia called it a "turning point in recent American cultural history" and emphasized that "the most significant growth has been among young adults," the group previously showing the biggest reading declines.

Yet the survey contains bad news as well.

The percentage of American adults who report reading any book not required for work or school during the previous year is still declining. It fell from 56.6 percent in 2002 to 54.3 percent in 2008.

Meanwhile, no one can say why the number of Americans reporting what the NEA calls "literary reading" rose -- though Gioia didn't hesitate to suggest an explanation.

"Over the past six years there has been a new sense of urgency in the United States about the cultural disaster represented by the decline in reading," he said in an interview last week. As a result, "millions of teachers, librarians, parents," politicians and others put their energies into reversing the trend.

Gioia said he likes to think that the NEA's surveys "played a catalytic role" and that NEA programs such as the Big Read -- through which the agency encourages American communities to sponsor the reading and discussion of a single book -- have been important.

What are concerned reading advocates, accustomed to hearing that the literary sky is falling, to make of this news?

Fielding questions in the chairman's office in the Old Post Office Pavilion, Gioia and NEA Research Director Sunil Iyengar tried to clear up any possible confusion.

When considering the category in which the turnaround occurred, it's important to know that "literary" isn't meant to imply "highbrow." The NEA survey includes all fiction genres, including thrillers and romance novels. Mysteries emerged this year as the most popular genre.

It's also notable that the gain came entirely from prose fiction. The percentage of adults reading drama and poetry declined during the period studied.

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