Americans are reading less, but should we care?

Reading Harry Potter
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
According to a new report, here’s an increasingly unusual activity for young people: reading a book. Mary Ocampo, 18, reads the J.K. Rowling novel “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” at a Barnes & Noble store in Manhasset, N.Y.


To Read or Not To Read,” a major report released Monday by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), makes for, yes, interesting reading. Its findings about declining reading among both youth and adults are also disquieting — not only because of correlations between higher reading rates and increased income, civic activity and other social benefits, but because of the sheer joy that more and more Americans are missing.

One might well respond that if they saw any joy in it, they’d be reading — so isn’t it presumptuous to say they’re missing out? Perhaps. But it seems equally arguable that nonreaders don’t realize what they’re missing — i.e. they haven’t learned to read well enough to enjoy the process, or they haven’t come across the right books or articles to ignite their interest. For whatever combination of reasons, reading rates and skills have gone down — a trend the NEA laments as a serious national problem.

Consider a few nuggets from the report’s findings:

  • The number of adults with bachelor’s degrees considered proficient in reading prose dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003.
  • Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.
  • Just slightly more than one-third of adult males now read literature.
  • Only 52 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 read a book voluntarily in 2002, down from 59 percent a decade earlier.
  • In 1984, 9 percent of 17-year-olds “never or hardly ever” read for fun; by 2004, that percentage jumped to 19.

“To Read or Not To Read,” which drew from more than 40 studies on American reading habits, has a large section on youth reading patterns. It reports that something happens between age 9, when kids are reading for pleasure, and the teen years — when less than a third of 13-year-olds, for example, say they read for fun “almost every day.”

“Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years,” says NEA Chairman Dana Gioia in the report’s preface. “There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates. These negative trends have more than literary importance. As this report makes clear, the declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications.”

Gioia is referring in that last sentence to correlations found between reading and higher civic/cultural engagement, between reading and better-paying jobs, and so on. In fact, the report says, “Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed.”

Seeking remedies
The authors are careful to reiterate throughout this section that they are talking about correlation, not causation. Still, they conclude, “The import of these national findings … is that reading frequently for pleasure is a behavior to be cultivated with the same zeal as academic achievement, financial or job performance, and global competitiveness.”

Zeal, however, in what directions? The NEA, rather than suggesting specific remedies, says it hopes to spur discussion and further research — and the discussion is beginning. Timothy Shanahan, a professor and director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, cautioned that it matters how you try to cultivate reading. On the Center for Literacy website Shanahan wrote Monday: “Recent research is showing that the impact of reading on achievement is more complicated than was once thought; practice is a great idea, but not all kinds and amounts of practice serve to improve reading. For instance, I have no doubt that kids do a lot of IMing these days, but reading your buddy’s 14 syllable message probably doesn’t provide the same intellectual challenge — or payoff — that reading a demanding chemistry book could have. The solution isn’t making reading into more of a duty, but making sure that more kids can engage it successfully. One interpretation of the problem would flood classrooms, homes, and communities with books; the other would improve the schools. Let’s face it, this second approach is harder and more expensive, but it is the one that will more likely pay off eventually.”

In a similar vein, American Library Association President Loriene Roy’s response to the report dwells not on access to books per se, but rather on the need to engage young people effectively. “Only half of U.S. public libraries have a librarian dedicated full time to young adult services,” she writes, adding, “An excellent first step is making sure that our libraries are well-funded and staffed by qualified professionals who have a passion for making everyone — child, teen or adult — into a lifelong reader.”

Her “first step” is also expensive. But so is the status quo, Gioia argues, concluding: “If, at the current pace, America continues to lose the habit of regular reading, the nation will suffer substantial economic, social, and civic setbacks.”

Susan Albright, a former editor of the Star Tribune’s editorial pages, writes about national and foreign developments.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jeanne Burns on 11/20/2007 - 04:18 pm.

    I read an article about this in the New York Times yesterday and was unsatisfied because they didn’t talk about possible solutions–they only cast doubt on the study by quoting its critics.

    You, on the other hand, make it clear the author’s intent, and offer possible solutions to a growing problem.

    Thank you!

  2. Submitted by Hanson Hanson on 11/27/2007 - 02:28 pm.

    Dear Susan Albright–did the NEA report include only reading BOOKS or did
    it include digital media which I believe young people spend lots of time
    READING. I’m not pessimistic about our young–my grandkids are great
    readers and well-informed about thousands of things I, a book-reading
    child, never dreamed of. Sincerely, Phebe Hanson

  3. Submitted by Zok Pavlovic on 11/27/2007 - 03:12 pm.

    This is not surprising at all considering that formal liberal education is rapidly vanishing in this country. Humanities and social sciences, in particular, are shrinking in favor of number crunching and downsizing. Everyone knows the geography teacher’s name (world is not complex at all, is it?)—they call him “Coach”—because everyone can teach that kind of stuff and he/she needs to teach something besides football. Yet when we expect our children to act as global citizens we are stunned with their inability for conceptual thinking.

    Parents, on the other hand, care mostly about functional aspects of education such as local sporting events and how to explain to their children that the reason for going to school is to get a good paying job afterwards. The only possible solution to this pathetic situation is to value education as an individual’s intellectual development and that needs to be every parent’s imperative no matter what. The easiest excuse is to say “we don’t have enough funding for education,” as to take one’s children to a local library once a week is humanly impossible. We publish over 100,000 books each year in the United States, a good portion of them juvenile literature.

    If families and K-12 institutions are incapable of engraving the zest for reading then negative results will be obvious at the postsecondary levels, which this report indeed indicates. With a new generation coming of age we will soon complete an entire cycle of ignorance. If barely anyone reads today how can we expect that the idea of reading will be passed down the road to future generations?

Leave a Reply