Though people might be excited about books and celebrities -- witness the long lines greeting Bill Clinton and, a few years ago, Colin Powell and the clamor over Harry Potter -- a national survey reported yesterday that most adults are not reading literature.
Reading novels, short stories, poetry or plays is a declining activity among all adults, with the youngest segments of the American population showing the most disinterest in the literary world.
"Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," prepared by the National Endowment for the Arts and based on data collected by the Census Bureau in 2002, delivered a series of dire observations about reading habits. Overall, the study of 17,000 adults found that from 1982 to 2002 the number of literary readers declined by 10 percent.
An industry group predicts that annual sales for all types of books will top $44 billion by 2008, up 58 percent from last year. Nevertheless, only 46.7 percent of adults say they are reading literature, compared with 56.9 percent two decades ago.
The issues surrounding general aliteracy -- people who don't read -- have been raised by a number of people, from Laura Bush, a former librarian who vigorously promotes authors and their works, to television host Oprah Winfrey, whose book clubs have drawn millions to little-known books and resurrected classics. The latest choice for Winfrey's club, Leo Tolstoy's 1877 novel "Anna Karenina," was boosted onto the bestseller list. But this highly visible activity and merchandising isn't reaching the masses.
The NEA, like many other observers of trends, blames technology. In 1990 consumers spent 6 percent of their leisure spending on audio, video, computers and software. Now, according to the report, those items account for 24 percent of recreational spending. Book-buying hasn't done that badly, standing at 5.7 percent in 1990 and 5.6 percent in 2002.
" 'Reading at Risk' merely documents and quantifies a huge cultural transformation that most Americans have already noted -- our society's massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information," said Dana Gioia, the poet who is NEA chairman, in the preface to the 60-page study.
Of the adults surveyed, 95.7 percent preferred watching television, 60 percent preferred attending a movie and 55 percent preferred lifting weights or doing other exercise to reading literature. Even 47 percent chose working in the garden.
The NEA report, which was released at the New York Public Library, laments that having fewer readers shrinks the pool of people who are activists in civic and cultural life. Adults who read literature also did volunteer and charity work, visited art museums and attended performing arts programs, as well as sports events.
Gioia said that "to lose such intellectual capability -- and the many sorts of human continuity that it allows -- would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment. . . . The most important thing now is to understand that America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted."
The new findings are an outgrowth of an extensive study, "Survey of Public Participation in the Arts," which the NEA asked the Census Bureau to conduct in 2002. That was released in April, and the NEA pulled out the data about reading habits.