How Many People Read Books?

atkins-bookshelf-booksNovelist and essayist Umberto Eco once wrote: “A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. So the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion.” But what happens if these books, that represent the memory of mankind, remain safe and protected but are not read?

In 2002, the National Endowment of the Arts published a report, Reading at Risk, that attempted to answer that very question. Conducted by the Census Bureau surveying more than 17,000 individuals, the report provided a snapshot of the role of literature in America. Respondents were asked if they had read any novels, short stories, poetry, or plays in their leisure time over the past year. The results paint a bleak picture: “[Reading at Risk] comes at a critical time, when electronic media are becoming the dominant influence in young people’s worlds. [The report] contains solid evidence of the declining importance of literature to our populace. Literature reading is fading as a meaningful activity, especially among young people.”

Some details from the Reading at Risk report:
1. Less than half of American adults now read literature. In 1982, 56.9 adults read literature; in 2002 only 46.7 read literature. That decline of about 10% represents the loss of 20 million readers. (Gallup conducted a poll in 2005, confirming a similar result: 47% of people reported reading books.)
2. The decline in reading literature parallels a decline in reading any book. In 1992, 60.9% adults read books, in 2002 that rate drops to 56.6%. In 1992, 54% of adults read literature; in 2002 that rates drops to 46.7%.
3. Women read more literature than men (55.1% vs 37.6%)
4. Reading of literature is declining among all education levels (high school: -16.6%; college: -15.4%)
5. Reading of literature is declining among all age groups, especially in the youngest age groups (18-24: -28%; 25-34: -23%; all ages -18%)
6. Literature competes with a vast array of electronic media. Non-readers watch more TV than readers. The average American home has 2.9 TVs, 3.1 radios, 1.4 video games, and 1 computer. In 1990 book buying was 5.7% of recreation spending; spending on audio, video, computers and software was at 6% — by 2002 that climbed to 24% (while book buying declined to 5.6%).

The authors of the report conclude with a distressing assessment: “The accelerating declines in literary reading among all demographic groups of American adults indicate an imminent cultural crisis. The trends among younger adults warrant special concern — unless some effective solution is found… Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century… Reading at Risk reveals [a] dire situation, a culture at risk.”

Unless we want our libraries to become museums, and our books to become rare relics, we need to return to basics — to put down electronic devices and grasp in our hands — what brilliant literary critic Northrop Frye accurately described as “the most technologically efficient machine that man has ever invented” — the printed book. Otherwise, we will surely Google our literary and cultural heritage into extinction.

Read related posts: The Memory of the World
The Power of Literature
Why We Read Poetry
Education Reform

For further reading:

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