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.
But what about prose nonfiction? Why did the NEA decide to single out the "literary" category in the first place?
"Because we're the National Endowment for the Arts," Gioia said. When the agency did its first survey, in 1982, it excluded nonfiction from consideration, and that's the long-term database it has to work with. Questions about overall book reading were added later, but the data don't go back as far.
This is understandable, but the result is confusing. It means, for example, that reading Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father" won't get you counted as a "literary reader" by the NEA.
The confusion is only made worse by the decline the NEA found -- but chose not to emphasize -- in the percentage of adults reading any book.
Why wasn't that the headline?
"We're not interested in the format of this, we're just interested in the activity," Gioia said. But it's true that "the literary reading seems to be going up, and the general reading seems to be going down."
The rise in literary reading, Iyengar pointed out, was the first really significant positive trend the NEA had seen in five surveys done over 26 years. The spike was "aberrational to us," he said. "We were like, 'What's going on with this?' "
One possibility is implied by Gioia's point about format. Could an increase in online reading -- or in the reporting of online reading by survey respondents -- be a factor? After all, the new survey asked specifically about Internet reading for the first time, and nearly 15 percent of adults said they read literature online.
It's not a question the NEA numbers can really answer, Iyengar said. But he pointed out that the overall reading question was asked early in the survey (as it always has been) and thus the later query about online reading would not have influenced responses.
The spike in reading in the 18-24 age range being so high -- it accounted for nearly 40 percent of the overall growth in reported literary reading -- raises another question: Was the "Harry Potter" phenomenon a major factor? The final volume of J.K. Rowling's series came out early in the 12 months covered by the survey, and in the years since the first "Harry" arrived, the young-adult sector has become one of publishing's main growth areas.
Maybe. But Gioia pointed out that Potter books were in stores when the NEA's literary reading rates were still tanking. He was happy, however, to spread around credit for the fiction-reading uptick.
"It's 'Harry Potter' and 'Twilight' and Oprah and the Big Read and the Internet," he said -- though he's not planning to declare victory as he returns to the private sector later this month.
"We've turned around a war that we were losing," Gioia said. "But victory is a long way off."