Sunday, July 11, 2004

Decline of US Reading for Pleasure and Leisure

Americans ultimately do what they love. They do what they choose to do. There are times when they do what others choose for them, but those times are short-lived if in conflict with how they yearn to use their time. If Americans find pleasure in reading books, they will choose books for entertainment. They will make time for reading books. If reading is not pleasurable, they will choose to do something else with their leisure time.

The National Endowment for the Arts recently issued a report, "Reading at Risk - a Survey of Literary Reading in America." The every-ten-year report was based on a comprehensive survey of 17,000 people conducted by the US Census Bureau in 2002. Only 46.7% of respondents said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the past year. And just 56.6% had read any book at all in the past 12 months.

The demographics are even more revealing: Merely 37.6% of all men read a work of fiction during that period; Hispanics (26.5%) read less fiction than African-Americans (37.1%), with European-Americans (my word for Caucasians....:) measuring a fiction reading rate of 51.4%. The greatest 20-year decline occurred within the young adult age groups: of 18-to-24 year olds and 25-to-34 year olds, 42.8% and 47.7% respectively reported reading a novel, short story, poem or play during the past year.

All categories...all ages, both genders, all racial categories...any way you view the data, everyone is reading less books. Remove from the survey the Harry Potter and Christian Fundamentalist Left Behind book sales phenomenons and purchases by Oprah Book Club devotees, and it's unimaginable how little leisure-time reading is being done by the American public.

So many questions naturally arise from the NEA survey results. Why has book reading for pleasure decreased in the US? Does it matter? Is this trend limited to the US? Why does this trend shock people? What does decreased book reading mean for the US? How can book reading be made more pleasurable? What can be done to to engage or re-engage readers of all ages?

I recently wrote an 3,500-word essay entitled "Challenging Children to Read" for an international contest. This subject fascinates me....I believe that the US's literacy and literary-reading rates have a profound impact on the ability of all Americans' to peacably pursue their rights to life, liberty and happiness, as guaranteed by the US constitution.

I'll be devoting more time and thought to this subject. It's more radical that it appears at first blush. Stay tuned.

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