Reading is on the Decline
The leaders of Greenville's arts organizations recently hosted a
provocative presentation at Furman by Dana Gioia, the chairman of the
National Endowment for the Arts. Gioia, a prominent poet, literary and
music critic, and former business executive, was appointed by President
Bush in 2003 to head the federal agency responsible for dispensing over
$100 million a year to local arts organizations across the country. At
the end of his presentation, Gioia announced to the Greenville audience
that the NEA has awarded the Warehouse Theatre a substantial grant to
support its efforts to promote Shakespeare in the public schools.
was the good news. The bad news that Gioia shared came in the form of a
sobering report commissioned by the NEA titled "Reading at Risk: A
Survey of Literary Reading in America."
The report derives from a
Census Bureau survey of 17,000 American adults representing all age
groups, races, income and education levels. Its findings document an
accelerating decline in literary reading across the country. Fewer and
fewer people are reading novels, poems or plays. Instead they are
watching TV or playing video games or surfing the Internet. Electronic
entertainment has trumped the traditional pleasures of reading literary
works of art.
In 2002, only 47 percent of Americans read a
literary book; in 1992, 54 percent had. The declines occurred in almost
every demographic cross section: men, women, whites, African Americans
and Hispanics. The greatest drop in literary reading, however, is
occurring among young adults aged 18-24. They are losing interest in
literature faster than any other age group. In terms of geographic
regions, the lowest levels of literary reading were found in the South.
news is not itself surprising. Electronic forms of entertainment
surround and seduce us. To be sure, televisions, radios and computers
provide information and cultural programming, but, as Gioia argues,
reading a serious book "requires a degree of active attention and
engagement" that the various forms of infotainment lack. "To lose such
intellectual capability and the many sorts of human continuity it
allows," Gioia warns, "would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment."
much more is at stake. The Census Bureau survey reveals that the people
who do continue to read works of literature are more involved in the
civic life of their communities than those who don't. More than 43
percent of literary readers perform volunteer and charity work as
against 17 percent of non-readers. Engaged readers make for engaged
citizens. The decline in active readers mirrors a similar decline in
levels of community involvement, charitable giving, and voting
Reading works of fiction, poetry and drama has
many benefits, but perhaps the most important contribution it can make
for our increasingly contentious age is to help us understand how others
might see the world differently. The sauntering poet Henry David
Thoreau once asked, "Could a greater miracle take place than for us to
look through each other's eyes for an instant?" Perhaps more than any
other form of expression, works of literature enable that miracle to
"It is not natural for our minds to be open to what is other,"
author Carol Bly points out: "we have to cultivate it." Literature
nurtures that ability to identify with other points of view and quite
different life experiences. Books have the capacity to liberate us from
the conceit of self-centeredness. They can excite greater compassion and
empathy, which in turn foster greater justice and kindness.
can be done? I am not optimistic that the disturbing trends summarized
by Dana Gioia can be reversed. But we must try to restore the allure of
serious literature. Like so many redeeming activities, a love for
reading needs to be instilled early in young people. Parents must assume
primary responsibility for helping their children develop a passion for
For all of the attention focused on the quality of
schools and of teachers, the best education begins at home. So tonight
turn off the TV, love your children and read to them.