Just what we needed: one more crisis. When the National Endowment for the Arts published a report this month on Americans' reading (or non-reading) of literature, its chairman said the study revealed "a national crisis." And indeed, the proportion of Americans who read literature in their leisure time has fallen. In 1982, 56.9 percent of adults said they'd done "literary reading" in the previous 12 months. The number dropped to 54 percent in 1992 and to 46.7 percent in 2002. (The report analyzes data collected in 2002 by the Census Bureau, and it defines literary reading to include any novels, short stories, plays or poetry, irrespective of literary quality.) Despite the decline, though, literary reading remains one of the most popular pastimes, and the report offers a detailed look at those who do it.
Women were more likely than men to have read literature in the past 12 months (55.1 percent vs. 37.6 percent). A breakdown by age group showed a below-average incidence of reading among the 18-24s (42.8 percent). That's unsurprising, since these young adults are busy with their own personal dramas. But the rate was also below the national average among the 65-74s (45.3 percent). Literary reading peaks among the 45-54s (51.6 percent), followed by the 55-64s (48.9 percent) and 25-34s (47.7 percent).
The report rebuts the notion that bookworms are oblivious to the real world. One example: 49.2 percent of "avid" book readers (who plow through 50 or more books of any sort in a year) did volunteer/charity work in the 12 months before being polled, vs. 36.5 percent of "light" readers (one to five books per year) and just 16.6 percent of those who read no literature at all. The stereotype of the bookish anti-jock was also unsupported by the data: "Frequent" readers (12-49 books per year) were far more likely than non-readers to attend sporting events (47.5 percent vs. 26.7 percent). Nor are readers poor in cash but rich in spirit. In fact, the percentage of people who read literature rises in neat tandem with household income: Among those making $20,000-29,999, 37.5 percent were literary readers; in the $30,000-39,999 bracket, 44.1 percent; among the $40,000-49,999s, 47.9 percent; in the $50,000-74,999 bracket, 52.3 percent; and of those with income of $75,000-plus, 60.8 percent.
Is TV to blame for the drop in literary reading? The data suggest not. It's true that people who read literature watch less TV than non-readers. But the disparity (2.7 hours per day vs. 3.1 hours) isn't huge. Most striking, people who read 50 or more books of any sort in the past year managed to watch 2.6 hours of tube per day.