Americans closing book on literature

Less than half say they read for pleasure, survey finds

By the Numbers

September 12, 2004|By Carole Goldberg | Carole Goldberg,HARTFORD COURANT

If Mark Twain had seen the recent National Endowment for the Arts report showing American adults are losing interest in reading literature, he surely would have had something to say about it.

But wait. He already did: "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."

But then, he also said: "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

What Twain was getting at is the phenomenon known today as "aliteracy." Illiterate people can't read. Aliterate people can but choose not to do it for enjoyment.

The NEA report, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," released in June, was based on a 2002 survey by the Census Bureau. It asked more than 17,000 Americans 18 or older if they had, in the previous 12 months, read any literature, defined as a novel or book of short stories, poetry or plays. Similar surveys were done in 1992 and 1982.

The bottom line: Less than half of American adults - 46.7 percent - now read literature for pleasure, as opposed to for work or school. That's a 10 percent drop since 1982. And from 1992 to 2002, the percentage of U.S. adults who had read any book fell 7 points.

Why are fewer and fewer people curling up with a good book?

Blame it on the ever-increasing popularity of electronic media, from TV to DVDs to video games to the Internet. Blame it on time-starved, overworked adults, overstressed parents and overprogrammed kids who never develop the reading habit.

Whatever the reasons, here are some other highlights (or perhaps we should say lowlights) of the NEA report:

Those who read literature dropped 14 percentage points, nearly tripling the rate of decline over the previous decade.

Declines were across the board, by gender, race and ethnicity, education and age. Women read more literature than men, 55.2 percent vs. 37.6 percent, but women are reading less, too. From 1992 to 2002, white readers of literature dropped from 58 percent to 51.4 percent. African-American readers declined from 45.6 percent to 37.1, and Hispanic readers went from 34 percent to 26.5.

Young adults changed from being the group most likely to read literature to almost the least likely (only readers 65 and older read less). Readers 18 to 24 years old dropped 28 percent from 1982 to 1992, the biggest rate of decline noted. The drop was 23 percent for those 25 to 34.

The number of literary readers remained flat over the 20-year period at 96 million, yet the U.S. population grew by 40 million adults during that time.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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