The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The long, steady decline of literary reading

The Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin. (John D McHugh/Getty Images)

The percentage of American adults who read literature — any novels, short stories, poetry or plays — fell to at least a three-decade low last year, according to a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 2015, 43 percent of adults read at least one work of literature in the previous year. That's the lowest percentage in any year since NEA surveys began tracking reading and arts participation in 1982, when the literature reading rate was 57 percent.

The NEA's numbers, released last month, are meant to capture reading for pleasure. They explicitly exclude required readings for work or school. The survey also makes no differentiation between physical books and works read on e-readers, in an attempt to capture the broadest possible range of leisure reading.

The 2015 data show that women (50 percent) are significantly more likely to read literature than men (36 percent). Whites (50 percent) are considerably more likely to read literature than blacks (29 percent) or Hispanics (27 percent).

But the biggest driver of literary reading appears to be education. About 68 percent of people with a graduate degree engaged in literary reading in 2015, compared to 59 percent with a bachelor's degree and 30 percent of those with only a high school education.

The stunning geographic divide in American creativity

Since the share of American adults with a bachelor's degree or more has nearly doubled since 1982, you might expect to see a concomitant rise in literary reading. But that hasn't happened. Indeed, previous research by the NEA has found that drops in the literary reading rate have happened across the board, among all ages, races and educational levels.

But that analysis did point to some other possible drivers of the decline in literary reading. There are a lot more products and platforms competing for your attention today than there were 30 years ago — video games have exploded in popularity and movies have transformed from something you did at the theater to something you do at home. Perhaps most important, the Internet, with its infinite distractions, did not exist 30 years ago.

Does it even matter if people are reading fewer works of literature? What if we're reading less Tolstoy, but filling the void with, say, Facebook statuses from our friends and articles we read online?

That may or may not be the case — the NEA's surveys don't ask people how many tweets or angry Web comments they read. But it's nonetheless clear that when people don't read literature, they miss out on a unique reading experience that no other type of writing can match.

A number of recent studies have demonstrated that fiction — particularly literary fiction — seems to boost the quality of empathy in the people who read it, their ability to see the world from another person's eyes. And good works of literature, particularly novels, can grant you direct access to another person's mind — whether it be the mind of the author, or of one of their imagined characters — in a way that few other works of art can.

So if we're reading less literature, it stands to reason that we may be becoming a less empathetic country as a result (research tends to bear this out). If changing reading habits are indeed making us less able to see things from other people's points of view, that could have drastic consequences across the board.

Who wants to read when you can color? Ron Charles does a deep dive into the joys of adult coloring books. (Video: Ron Charles/The Washington Post)

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