Pleasures of the book

Our view: Whether it's Tolstoy or Tom Clancy, more Americans are enjoying a good read

January 19, 2009

The National Endowment for the Arts has good news for authors, at least those who write fiction. For the first time in 26 years, the number of Americans who read literature for pleasure has risen, according to its latest survey. More young adults are reading than ever, even if they're now getting their fiction and poetry online.

Call it an astonishing reversal of decades-old cultural decline or just good old-fashioned escapism - the survey counts supermarket pulp fiction as well as classics like War and Peace - but the fact that recreational reading is growing again offers hope for the continued life of the mind.

Yet, there's a catch: The proportion of Americans who read books not required by school or work continued to drop, as it has since 1982. The delightful adventures of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, the charming sleuths of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and Khaled Hosseini's poignant Afghan protagonists apparently are no match for reality TV. Still, the fact that Americans' mental diet includes more literature - even if it's heavy on starchy thrillers and sugary romances - may have a salutary effect on the nation's happiness quotient. Studies have shown that even if your tastes run more to The Da Vinci Code and Marley and Me than to Moby Dick and Remembrance of Things Past, people who love a good read are more apt to develop positive behaviors, establish strong family and community bonds, attend arts and sporting events, exercise and participate in outdoor activities than people who don't.

So millions of Americans - as book club members or on their own - are curling up with their favorite authors. It's a testament to a belief that even in tough economic times, books can and do enrich our lives in truly magical ways.

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