Sea of Noise

Thu, 22 Jul 2004

Reading At Risk

The National Endowment for the Arts reports that Americans who have read literature in the past year are now the minority. Participation has declined across all demographic groups, and overall reading has also declined. Most troubling, the decline is steepest in the youngest groups.

The NEA's alarmist conclusions may be a bit overstated. It's not clear to me that their focus on "literature", rather than reading in general, is appropriate. Also, they cite increased participation in online media, video games, and the like as one reason for the decline in "reading literature", and point to a decline in participation in traditional cultural events as a consequence; but this may simply reflect their prejudice in favor of traditional literary forms and artistic endeavors (e.g. novels and plays) as against new forms (e.g. blogs or shared virtual worlds). Finally, while they point to a correlation between the groups that read literature and the groups that participate in civic life, they do nothing to demonstrate that a decline in reading causes a decline in civic participation.

I am troubled by the trends revealed in the NEA's report; but the NEA could do a far better job of understanding the problem and its causes and effects.

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