Reading At Risk?

January 14, 2005

The National Endowment for the Arts published "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America" last summer. The report claims that reading as a leisure activity is in decline but also that the speed of the decline has increased in the last decade, especially among young adults. If such trends continue, they will transform the American republic. The health of democratic institutions arguably depends upon having a public that reads for pleasure. 
Basic literacy must be joined with the skill to understand the implicit aspects of texts; otherwise, the ability to read can leave a person merely the victim of other people's words. Those who read only when required by circumstances of school or work seldom develop such skill because they do not inhabit a culture in which reading is a normal leisure activity. The mere capacity to read is not enough to sustain an open civil society. That goal requires a sufficiently large public that is capable of discerning the undercurrents of the language that shapes and guides nations. Only a public that enjoys reading can sustain the reading practices that make possible the development of such skills. 
The NEA report is based on Census Bureau data collected in 1982, 1992 and 2002. Despite the absence of data for intervening years, the survey findings offer some suggestive comparisons. All types of imaginative writing were included as part of the working definition of "literary reading." People were asked whether, during the last 12 months, they had "read any novels or short stories, plays or poetry" that were not part of required reading for employment or school. The survey, in effect, identifies "literary readers" as those who read imaginative literature for pleasure. 
Most of the survey results were not surprising. For example, increases in rates of literary reading correlate directly with increases in education level (the strongest indicator), age and family income. The rate of literary reading for women (59.1 percent) was considerably higher than that for men (36.9 percent) and is much lower than average among minority groups. Nevertheless, during the past 20 years, across all categories of race, class, gender or education level, the trend is downward. 
Three conclusions of the report are most revealing. First, the rate of decline in literary reading has accelerated greatly in the last decade, dropping almost three times as fast between 1992 and 2002 (minus 14 percent) as it had in the previous decade (minus 5 percent). Second, the decline in literary reading by the youngest group of adults (ages 18-24) was 55 percent greater than that for the total adult population. A third conclusion that some will find surprising is that literary reading correlates strongly not only with other public forms of cultural participation but also with activity in volunteer and charity work. 
Ultimately, the report suggests that we live in a culture that is not illiterate but is increasingly postliterate -- a culture in which people who are able to read increasingly choose not to do so. For a growing number of young Americans especially, reading is associated almost exclusively with the drudgery of school assignments and has no connection to what they imagine to be "real life." In the imagination of such a youth culture, "reading for pleasure" is comparable to "brushing your teeth for pleasure" and simply does not appear as an option.
How can this kind of situation be addressed? One way is to offer university students an alternative to our postliterate condition -- a community and a culture in which the vigorous discussion of ideas and literature is normal and encouraged. Baylor's residential Living and Learning Centers offer young people just such an opportunity for intellectual community. Against the trend toward passive consumption of cultural "products," students can become part of a culture of shared inquiry in which those pleasures peculiar to the active reading and discussion of literature are part of their daily experience. 
America long has had such communities that form the very fabric of civil society, but that fabric now seems to be unraveling. There is, of course, no necessary connection between literacy and virtue: Tyrants and saints alike can be equally lettered, or not. We live, however, in a culture where mass literacy persists (at least for now), and we are obliged to make the best use of that gift. 
For the full text of the report, see the links available at

Donnelly, BA '92 (University of British Columbia), MA '96 and PhD '01 (University of Ottawa), is assistant professor of literature in the Honors College, where he teaches in the Great Texts Program and the English department.