Less Reading or Less Fiction Reading?

  • alphabet informational texts
  • 31 December, 2007

          The National Endowment for the Arts report on reading habits in the U.S. continues to reverberate. This is a report that American journalists are fascinated by. As one reporter explained to me today, he was writing for an audience of literary writers (poets, novelists, and the like), and he indicated that the NEA report was discouraging to that audience. “They wonder if it is even worth writing a novel, if no one is going to read it.”

           My skepticism about the NEA report is two-fold: first, I doubt that we are really reading less than in the past, and second, I don’t believe that the reason we’re not doing better in literacy attainment is due to our lack of pleasure reading. I do believe that Americans, while not reading less, are certainly reading differently and I suspect that is really what NEA has tapped into. American kids aren’t really reading less well than the last generation, so this supposed drop in reading practice is not the culprit (since there was no murder, there can be no murderer). I don’t even think more reading practice is the key to helping our kids to read better than those in previous generations; that will take more and better teaching from the schools.

          The shift in American’s taste for reading is interesting, and indeed it should be threatening to the fiction writing community. Publisher association industry studies have tracked the reading habits of American adults for decades. These studies in aggregate reveal that at one time the chief focus of pleasure reading was the novel—for both men and women. By the 1950s, men’s tastes had shifted, perhaps because of the war and the greater economic opportunities available, but surveys started to show a much bigger interest in popular science, biography, history, automobiles, and so on. Women’s tastes have made the same shift, but only recently (during the past decade or so), and now even children seem to prefer fact to story, a new development.

          There is all kinds of evidence supporting this shift, beyond these industry surveys. For instance, think how popular memoirs have become. I’m not speaking here of traditional autobiographies, such as those written by politicians and movie stars. Instead, I have in mind books like Angela’s Ashes and A Boy’s Life. In an earlier era, these writers would have proudly claimed these works as fictional inventions, but now they clamor to have readers believe them to be fact-based narratives. Fifty years ago, an author would have been proud to have written a book from their own imagination; now authors hope readers will believe what they have written is just an act of memory.

          Young readers are reading, but they are reading on the Internet, they are reading books about cooking and dieting, and true life accounts of sports heroes, and television personalities. The NEA is confusing the shift to that kind of reading as being a shift away from reading altogether.

           As a reading professor and former president of the International Reading Association, I’m really just as happy if someone reads a biography of Benjamin Franklin as I am if they read the latest Booker Prize recipient. However, if I were a novelist, I’d still be concerned, since these studies are showing a lessening of interest in novels. My disagreement with NEA matters in such a case, as I would guess that different strategies will be needed to pull non-readers into reading versus those that would be used to try to get informational text readers to shift over to literary reading. If I were a literary publisher, I would be working on the latter problem and not the former one.


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Less Reading or Less Fiction Reading?


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