NEW YORK — "Reading on the rise," declares a new government study. It reports a surprising and welcome increase in the number of adults who recently read a novel, short story, play or other work of literature.
But the study also suggests that not every person who reads necessarily wants to.
According to the report being issued today by the National Endowment for the Arts, just more than half of the people 18 or older who were surveyed read some kind of literature in 2008, up from 46.7 percent in 2002, when the number had dropped by 7 percentage points over the previous decade. NEA chairman Dana Gioia called the results "astonishing" and an "important new cultural trend."
According to the survey, which reflects both online works and paper texts, reading rates increased for whites, blacks and Hispanics, for men and for woman, for all levels of education and across virtually all ages. Reading among those 18 to 24 years old jumped from 42.8 in 2002 to 51.7 percent last year.
For much of the decade, Gioia and the NEA have warned of a crisis in literacy and have implemented numerous programs to encourage reading. In a preface to the new report, being released shortly before Gioia steps down after heading the endowment for seven years, he cites a nationwide effort and says the results demonstrate that "our faith in positive social and cultural change was not misplaced."
But the preface does not mention a countertrend: a drop among people not obligated to read. Adults who read books of any kind — fiction or nonfiction, online or on paper — that were not assigned by a teacher or employer dropped from 56.6 percent of adults in 2002 to 54.3 percent last year. The fall was greatest among those younger than 55.
While the number of adults who say they read a non-required book is 3.5-million higher than in 2002, the report notes that the total adult population increased by 19-million, meaning that the number of people who didn't voluntarily read books increased 15.5-million.
Gioia thinks the NEA report is essentially positive — if only because good news about reading is so rare — but says that "we're still in a culture in which all kinds of reading are under pressure" from other forms of leisure and entertainment.
The NEA chair, himself a published poet, doesn't have a definitive answer to the large gap between voluntary readers and reading overall. He speculates, "just a hypothesis," about a large subgroup of "shallow readers," people who feel compelled to take on a book for a class or a reading program but are not inspired to finish the text or to read independently.
"We have so many of these programs around the country, and I always tell our people that we can't expect to make permanent readers out of everyone," he says.