Reading on the rise?

A new report celebrating America's return to "literary reading" doesn't tell the whole story

January 21, 2009|By David L. Ulin

Is reading making a comeback in the United States? That's the finding of "Reading on the Rise," a study released last week by the National Endowment for the Arts, which concludes that literary reading among adult Americans has gone up 3.5 percent over the last six years.

The endowment considers this significant because its last reading survey, in 2002, reported such a precipitous drop in literary reading that it was titled "Reading at Risk." The 2002 study showed that in the 10-year period beginning in 1992, adult readers fell from 54 percent of the population to 46.7 percent. So does the new report mean we've turned a cultural corner?

The answer depends on how you think about reading. I'm not so sure reading really was in crisis - any more than it ever has been.

Laments over the death of reading are as old as mass literacy; ever since we began to consider culture as a social value, we've fixated on the way it falls apart. But what is it, exactly, we're lamenting? The NEA's terms are not particularly useful. The key phrase in "Reading on the Rise" is "literary reading," which the endowment defines as "novels and short stories, plays or poems." In 2008, for the first time, the NEA included online reading habits in its survey; as in previous years, nonfiction was left out of the loop.

That puts the works of David McCullough, Joseph Mitchell, Patricia Hampl and a lot of other authors into the "not literature" category and out of the picture. More to the point, such a definition is unconscious of its own elitism, the idea that literary reading is different from (read: better than) any other kind.

In a recent essay in The Nation, William Deresiewicz argued that the NEA has played into the tendency of so-called literary mandarins - the critics and scholars - to see themselves as "the Last of the Readers," an embattled cultural elite. His response to the 2002 survey's finding that "only" 96 million American adults engaged in literary reading? "Ninety-six million American adults engage in literary reading!"

In other words, there's a whole lotta reading going on. I agree with Mr. Deresiewicz; 96 million is a lot of readers, a veritable army of the written word. And yet I'm glad that reading also seems to be on the upswing - if indeed it is.

"Reading on the Rise" makes a big deal of the fact that when you consider all age groups, "the absolute number of literary readers is now the highest in the survey's history": 112.8 million, up 16.6 million from 2002. The percentages, though, tell a different story. In 2008, 50.2 percent of American adults read literature, but in 1982, the figure was 56.9 percent.

Then there are the demographics, which may say less about literary habits than about American life.

Not surprisingly, reading rates go up according to level of education; 68.1 percent of college graduates identify as readers, compared with 39.1 percent of high school graduates and 18.5 percent of those who never went to high school. Consider ethnicity - 55.7 percent of whites, 42.6 percent of African-Americans and 31.9 percent of Latinos meet the NEA's "literary reader" criteria - and you get a fuller picture, suggesting that in the U.S., reading is a talisman of class.

This is important because "Reading on the Rise" correlates its findings to a broader context, framing reading in terms of moral value. "Reading is an important indicator of various positive individual and social behavior patterns," the report informs us, adding that "previous NEA research has shown that literary readers attend arts and sports events, play sports, do outdoor activities, exercise and volunteer at higher rates than nonreaders."

Setting aside the question of whether reading is, or even should be, good for you (check out Alan Bennett's short novel The Uncommon Reader for a deft take on the other side of that debate: books as socially disruptive), these sorts of comparisons suggest a disturbing subtext, in which a certain kind of reader makes a better grade of citizen - literary eugenics, in other words.

But don't expect "Reading on the Rise" to address that; it's too interested in celebrating itself.

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times, where this article originally appeared. His e-mail is david.ulin@latimes.com.

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