Last week, the National Endowment for the Arts released its new report, Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy. Unlike its most recent previous efforts, this one, as the title suggests, is not a gloom-and-doomer about how American youth is going to hell in a handbasket. In fact, their new report is more consistent with comments I've made in this space than with their own earlier reports.
For the past 25 years, NEA has periodically surveyed American adults to find out about their literary reading habits (literary referring to fiction, poetry, drama, and the like). In 2002, they indicated that there were nearly 7.5 percent fewer adults reading literature than in any past survey and it wouldn't be too much to say that the NEA thought that signaled the end of Western civilization as we know it.
Some observers, me included, pointed out that such a big drop in such a short period was puzzling and improbable, and that perhaps people were reading just as much, just not fiction.
I know in my own personal life, I mix my reading up pretty good. I just read several novels in a row, so to keep fresh, I have started in on Francis Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe, a history (albeit with a somewhat literary bent in its styling).
The new NEA census indicates that since 2002 the readership of literature has climbed by 3.5% and that more American adults read literature than at any time since they started their studies.
Not surprisingly, NEA couldn't pin this great success on anything. It is totally unclear what might have changed these habits so quickly and what it means (except maybe that Western civilization has been saved after all).
I think the biggest problem in this discussion is the conflating of literacy with literary reading. The NEA has chosen to use its past reports to expound on the idea that young people are lost because they aren't partaking in literary pursuits and that this means they can't read and can't think as well as their predecessors.
Not to put too fine a point on it, that is bunk!
Young people are increasingly doing their reading in electronic forms and using their reading for purposes other than literary. That neither means that they have stopped reading nor stopped thinking.
Here's a new hypothesis on what happened in 2002: America was wracked by the terrorism that hit near the end of 2001, and we plunged into a very difficult war (while debating entering another potentially devastating war in Iraq). Those terrible public events increased interest in understanding terrorism, Middle Eastern politics, war, public events, and religion (Koran sales rose, for instance). Yes, readers could have turned to literature to explore their feelings of anger and impotence, rage and retaliation. Instead, maybe what they did was turned to reading to feed their more rational impulses. Maybe we weren't as concerned about how we felt about things as about what we needed to know to take appropriate action.
The NEA survey treats the reading of history, world culture, public affairs, religion, and current events as being non-literary, and by implication of their argument, non-literate. The literacy that we need must be broader than that, however: our reading ability needs to allow us to make sense of a chemistry text, a Time magazine article, a biography of Osama Bin Laden, the manifesto from the Unabomber, or the President's most recent speech... not just Vanity Fair, The Pickwick Papers, or even The Kite Runner.
Fiction and poetry do fulfill very real human needs, but most adults do not seek to fulfill those particular needs 24/7. Other reading experiences can enable other worthwhile human pursuits. And, sometimes reading isn't even the best place to turn (surveys suggest people sought more family time, for instance, after 9/11--maybe that, too, is where some of the literary reading was shed temporarily).
The implication of NEA's previous reports is that schools must do more to encourage literary reading. The swings in the amount of literary reading from period to period, suggest that the type of reading one engages in is due more to contemporary needs than education. People use reading to fulfill their needs. Schools should redouble their efforts to increase the depth and quality of the reading that its students can engage in, and expose students to a wide range of texts and uses of reading. That way, whether the individual is trying to improve their sexual prowess (The Joy of Sex), enhance their ability to be a citizen (Dreams of My Father), or trying to find out how to cope emotionally with the death of a spouse (The Sea), they will have a book (or a website) to turn to.
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