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American Reading in Decline June 1, 2004

 “Literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young. The decline in reading parallels a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, (less) active and (less) independent-minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative or productive society can afford to lose.” – Dana Gioia, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts. (Extract from Reading at Risk – A Survey of Literary Reading in America – Research Division Report #46).

“Literature reading is fading as a meaningful activity, especially among younger people. If one believes that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy, the decline of literary reading calls for serious action.”

“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, suggesting that, unless some effective solution is found, literary culture, and literacy in general, will continue to worsen. Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.”

The Reading at Risk survey, conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002, polled 17,000 individuals who were asked if, during the previous 12 months, they had read any novels, short stories, plays or poetry in their leisure time (not for work or school).

Some Key Findings of the “Reading at Risk” report :

  1. The percentage of adult Americans reading literature has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years, from 56.9% in 1982 to 46.7% in 2002
  2. Less than half (46.7%) of the adult American population now reads literature.
  3. The 10 percentage point decline in literary reading represents a loss of 20 million potential readers.
  4. Only the strong growth in overall U.S. population of nearly 40 million adults from 1982 to 2002 allowed the actual number of readers to remain constant at 96 million.
  5. The percentage of adult American male readers has declined from 49.1% in 1982 to 37.6% in 2002.
  6. The percentage of adult American female readers has declined from 63.0% in 1982 to 55.1% in 2002.
  7. The percentage of young-adult American readers (age 18-24) has declined from the group most likely to read literature to the group least likely - from 59.8% in 1982 to 42.8% in 2002.
  8. The percentage of young-adult American readers (age 25-34) has declined from 62.1% in 1982 to 47.7% in 2002.
  9. Literary readers are more likely than non-literary readers to perform volunteer and charity work, visit art museums, attend performing arts events, and attend sporting events.

The full 60-page Reading at Risk report is available at http://www.nea.gov/pub/ReadingAtRisk.pdf

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