Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy

Hannah Miller

National Endowment for the Arts
January 2009

After two recent doom-and-gloom surveys--2004's "Reading at Risk" and 2007's "To Read or Not to Read"--the National Endowment for the Arts has emerged with some surprisingly positive findings about the state of literacy in the U.S. As he was leaving his post, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia crowed that this new study marks a "turning point in recent American cultural history." (Maybe President Obama deserves credit?) Unfortunately, a closer look shows that the study doesn't quite buttress that prediction. The report evaluates the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a federal survey of more than 18,000 adults; it found that, for the first time in the survey's 26 year history, literary reading (defined as reading any novel, short story, poem, or play) has risen among adult Americans. The trend holds true regardless of gender, race, education level, or age group. Good news. What the NEA spends less time discussing, however, is that while the absolute number of book-reading adults grew from 2002 to 2008, the number of book-reading adults as a percentage of the U.S. population declined. Furthermore, gains in reading came exclusively from prose fiction; the percentage of adults reading drama and poetry declined and no data were gathered for prose nonfiction. So while we're pleased that literary reading is on the rise, especially for young adults and those who did not complete high school, the future of reading might not be quite as rosy as the NEA would like us to believe. You can find the report here.

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