NEA Arts Magazine

Reading At Risk

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia announced the findings of a landmark survey, Reading at Risk, at the New York Public Library on July 8th. “This report documents a national crisis,” Chairman Gioia noted at the press conference. Literary reading is in dramatic decline—with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature. The Chairman added, “The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity—and all the diverse benefits it fosters—impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”

Reading at Risk presents the results from the literature segment of a large-scale survey, the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002 at the request of the NEA. This survey investigated the number of adult Americans, age 18 and over, who attended artistic performances, visited museums, watched broadcasts of arts programs, or read literature. The survey sample numbered more than 17,000 individuals, which makes it one of the most comprehensive polls of art and literary participation ever conducted.
For the literature section, respondents were asked if, during the past twelve months, they had read any novels or short stories, plays, or poetry. A positive response to any of those three categories was counted as reading literature, including popular genres such as mysteries, as well as contemporary and classic literary fiction. No distinctions were drawn on the quality of literary works.

Reading at Risk provides an invaluable snapshot of the role of literature in the lives of Americans. It comes at a critical time, when electronic media are becoming the dominant influence in young people’s worlds. Reading at Risk adds new and distressing information to the discussion. It documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002—a loss of 20 million potential readers. The rate of decline is increasing and, according to the survey, has nearly tripled in the last decade.

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. The rate of decline for the youngest adults, those aged 18 to 24, was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population. Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.

Twenty years ago, just after the NEA’s 1982 survey, the landmark study A Nation at Risk warned that "a rising tide of mediocrity" had overtaken the school system and threatened a generation of students. The report sparked a massive reform effort whose consequences are still evolving today.

Reading at Risk reveals an equally dire situation, a culture at risk. The NEA calls upon public agencies, cultural organizations, the press, and educators to take stock of the sliding literary condition of our country. It is time to inspire a nationwide renaissance of literary reading and bring the transformative power of literature into the lives of all citizens.