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New NEA report says reading is up. And hip.

January 12, 2009 |  8:26 am

Readingontherise

In a report released today, the National Endowment for the Arts has announced the first upward reading trends since 1982. To make sure the good news gets out, the report is titled, without qualification, "Reading on the Rise."

More adults are reading literature now, a total of 16.6 million more than in 2002. Reading rates among Latino Americans have climbed steeply, by 20%. And adults age 18-24, the elusive hipster demographic, have suddenly shown an increase in reading rates -- up 21% -- after falling 20 % in 2002's survey. In the vernacular of an earlier generation, reading is cool, dude.

As wonderful as these figures are, I'm not jumping up and down with glee. The NEA's literature reports, which began in 1982, have stuck to the same set of questions in order to have comparable data. But the last two, much gloomier reports -- "To Read or Not to Read" and "Reading at Risk" -- have had to figure out how to add questions that would accurately measure online reading. Initially, online reading didn't count at all. Has its inclusion helped to buoy reading rates? I wish there were more detail in the executive summary.

In his introduction to the executive summary, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia -- a poet -- sets new media up in opposition to reading. He writes:

A decline in both reading and reading ability was clearly documented in the first generation of teenagers and young adults raised in a society full of videogames, cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices.

I'm troubled by the idea that laptops are anti-literature. Clearly, much of the time people are staring at their laptops, they're reading. I thought perhaps the report would say that the next generation of young adults found their way to literature through all the reading they do with new media. Well, here's the next sentence:

Faced by a clear and undeniable problem, millions of parents, teachers, librarians, and civic leaders took action (inspired by thousands of journalists and scholars who publicized the issues at stake). Reading became a higher priority in families, schools, and communities. Thousands of programs, large and small, were created or significantly enhanced to address the challenge. The NEA’s Big Read program is only one conspicuous example of these myriad efforts.

When I reported on the Big Read for the paper, I found it to be a lovely program. But the connection between offline pro-reading programs and increased reading rates seems tenuous. What other factors were considered? Did libraries expand, increasing access to books? Did people have more leisure time from 2002 to 2008, more time to sit and read? And what about those pesky laptops, after all? I'll have to read the whole report to find out.

One last thing from the executive summary: Of every 100 of you reading this -- or other blogs, articles and essays -- 77 read literature offline. But I'm guessing you already knew that.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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