December 8, 2004: Perspective

Is literary reading dead?
If reading seems less pleasurable, blame newspapers

By Carlin Romano ’76

Carlin Romano ’76, critic at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education and literary critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is completing a book titled America the Philosophical, about the role of philosophy in American life.


You don’t need a survey to detect the decline of reading, the diminished clout of the book.

Just mull anecdotal comparisons. Back in the 14th century, Edward III swapped 80 oxen for one illustrated tome, thinking that he’d pulled off a royal deal. These days President Bush brags that he doesn’t even read newspapers. In the 16th century, Ulric Fugger, chamberlain to Pope Paul IV, bought so many books that his family had him declared insane. Today you’d have to buy thousands of Lucent shares for your family to even pay attention.

And the clincher: When Marc Antony sought to impress Cleopatra, he gave her the 200,000-volume library of Pergamum. This year Marc Anthony won Jennifer Lopez just by promising not to be Ben Affleck.

Anecdotal science, at your service. But quasi-scientific statistical studies also have their place. One hopes “Reading at Risk,” the National Endowment of the Arts report released to prominent notice in the New York Times last summer, will spark the debate on American reading it urges.

Among the study’s key findings, extrapolated from 2002 census data, is that the “percentage of adult Americans reading literature has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years,” from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 46.7 percent in 2002. Similar findings contribute to what poet, essayist, and NEA Chairman Dana Gioia describes in a thoughtful preface as a “bleak assessment of the decline of reading’s role in the nation’s culture.”

The number of American adults who read any book sank from 60.9 percent in 1992 to 56.6 percent in 2002. Literary reading — the reading of fiction, poetry, or plays — fell off among all specified ethnic groups, at all educational levels, among all age groups, and among both women and men. The “steepest decline in literary reading is in the youngest age groups”: for example, from 59.8 percent in 1982’s 18-to-24 group to 42.8 percent in 2002. And the report warns that the decline in literary reading, “which correlates with increased participation in a variety of electronic media,” also “foreshadows an erosion in cultural and civic participation” because literary readers participate more actively than nonreaders in volunteer and charity work, and more frequently patronize performing-arts events, sports events, and museums.

“Indeed,” conclude the report’s authors after setting out their major findings, “at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.”

As with most Cassandra-ish warnings from dramatically unveiled studies, the first-day headlines off “Reading at Risk” yield to more nuanced judgments when one examines the full report. One facet that deserves scrutiny, in assessing overall reading in America, is the investigators’ strict division between reading for recreation and reading for work and school.

The survey, which covered 17,135 individuals in a nation of nearly 300 million, “asked respondents if, during the previous 12 months, they had read any novels, short stories, plays, or poetry in their leisure time (not for work or school).” That last criterion speaks volumes when interpreting the reading habits of young people. With the relaxation of traditional course requirements and expansion of higher education generally, more young people than ever integrate their desired reading into course work. The report acknowledges as much, perhaps too much in passing, asking whether the finding that “the youngest age group has the lowest literary reading rate” is “simply a ‘natural’ function of the fact that younger people are temporarily preoccupied with other types of reading (textbooks and course work) or other leisure activities?”

Headlines like “Fewer Noses in Books” or “Literary Reading Declines in America” may thus distort the more profound finding of “Reading at Risk”: that literary reading, like all reading, may not be so much in quantitative decline as shifting from a recreational to a work-oriented activity full of challenge, difficulty, and potential achievement. Such a shift would hardly warrant the report’s judgment that “literature reading is fading as a meaningful activity.”

One part of the debate over “Reading at Risk” will inevitably focus on such issues — whether the cartoon picture of a less readerly culture makes precise sense (amid a burgeoning of publishing houses and explosion of chain bookstores and readings), or whether reading is becoming engaged intellectual labor rather than evening diversion.

Regardless, a second prong of the debate should focus on why reading seems less pleasurable and recreational than it used to be. The causes are many, the columns available in a magazine “column” few. Here, then, to get the debate rocking and roiling, let’s finger one big, ironic culprit in the demise of reading as recreation: print media, especially newspapers.

Consider your standard Weekend section, typically published on Friday. It lists scores to hundreds of activities, but not reading. Like many Arts and Entertainment sections, it ties its coverage to movies, CDs, concerts, TV shows — anything but a book. Back in 1992, that key year for “Reading at Risk” research, I suggested to my Weekend editor, on the eve of the Barcelona Olympics, a roundup of books on the city. He politely explained that such a piece “didn’t belong” in the Weekend section. Reading no longer counted as an acceptable recovery plan from the five-day workweek. Looking back, I like to think I could have affected those 1992 numbers.

“Almost nothing in our culture,” the distinguished New York book editor Elisabeth Sifton memorably observed in a Harper’s symposium, “encourages the private moment of reading.”

I love that line. I also believe in its ironic, absurdist corollary: “Almost nothing in the modern American newspaper and magazine encourages the private moment of reading.” Owners slash space for book reviews and coverage at the same time that they bemoan their own loss of readers. Then they order the remaining readers to do anything — anything — but read in their spare time. True, the three highest-circulation seven-day-a-week newspapers in America are also the three with the most powerful book coverage. But the NEA isn’t worried about beneficiaries of the enlightened managers of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post.

So we’re left with a general media environment in which the readerly commit a kind of cultural suicide in pursuit of the less readerly. In magazine and newspaper offices across the country, well-educated editors stuff their publications with pieces about trash movies, hip-hop hotties, reality-TV spinoffs, and ingénue profiles — then go home and read a book. As print people drive their hordes toward nonprint media, TV folks – supposedly a dimmer breed — cleverly ignore the competition, rarely acknowledging what’s in the local papers and almost never devoting a minute to a nonpresidential book.

If “Reading at Risk” makes print players stop and think about the idiocies and self-contradictions of some of their practices, perhaps slippage in the belief that “Reading Is Fun!” can be stemmed. A free set of old Columbia Journalism Reviews to the first Weekend section that trumpets downloading of the NEA document ( as this Saturday’s barrel of laughs. end of article

This essay first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.



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