Sunday, December 2, 2007

“To Read or Not to Read”: America Chooses the Latter

Several media outlets have noted the National Endowment for the Arts’ new report on national reading habits, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence.” As its title belies, the report offers a grim set of statistics and correlations that collectively indicate declines in both average time spent reading for pleasure and reading proficiency. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Jennifer Howard notes some of the more damning indicators:

“…Just how reading-averse have Americans become? In 2006, the study found, 15-to-24-year-olds spent just seven minutes on voluntary reading on weekdays— 10 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays. They found time to watch two to two-and-a-half hours of television daily.
“Older and presumably wiser— or at least more bookish— generations didn't do much better. In 2006 people ages 35 to 44 devoted only 12 minutes a day to reading. Even the best-read group, Americans 65 and older, logged less than an hour each weekday and just over an hour on weekends.”

Considering that average reading scores among elementary school children have increased, NEA chairman Dana Gioia argues in the report’s preface that “all [measurable] progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years,” leading to a “general decline” among teenagers and adults. The report goes on to suggest how reading skills relate to employment and civic participation, as the Washington Post’s Bob Thompson writes:

“Thirty-eight percent of employers rate high school graduates as "deficient" in reading comprehension, while 72 percent rate them deficient in writing. Good reading skills correlate strongly with higher earnings and more job opportunities. Reading skills also correlate with increased voting, volunteerism, charity work, attendance at cultural events and even exercising and playing sports.”

What should we make of the NEA’s findings? First, it’s important to note that while “To Read or Not to Read” accounts for online reading, Gioia has admitted that the methodologies to track specific data about online reading habits isn’t yet reliable. This is significant, for it’s possible to imagine a slightly more positive set of statistics based upon Americans teenagers and adults doing more of their reading from Internet sources. (Both Thompson and the New York Times’ Mokoto Rich cite critics of the report that argue along these lines.) Conversely, the Internet could be a culprit as well, and Gioia doesn’t dismiss this idea; while he argues that the report “is not an elegy for the bygone days of print culture,” he claims in the preceding sentence that “newer electronic media…provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.” Howard also includes his comment during a news conference about the report that it’s easy to “become distracted as a society,” leaving little doubt of what he views as the distractions.

I admit that I’m biased, but I think he has a point. The report’s claim that reading “competes with other media” (page 9) is a perfect description of how profoundly our media culture has changed in the past decade, let alone over the past few decades; books have simply become one option among many during our leisure time. What would be helpful is to see a future study that, assuming the development of better methodologies, examines both how we read online and how what we read online relates to proficiency—especially given that online access will only be increasing in the near future. This notwithstanding, it’s reasonable to take “To Read or Not to Read” at its word and immediately focus on how we can reverse the downward turn in reading and its negative consequences.

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