To Read or Not To Read

Editors’ Note: Only a few years ago the National Endowment for the Arts released a study showing a serious decline in the reading of literature in America. The percentage of the population that had read even a page of poetry, drama, or fiction for pleasure in a single year had dropped below 50 percent for the first time in modern history. Now the NEA has released a new study about reading in general. To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, based on data from “large, national studies conducted on a regular basis by U.S. federal agencies, supplemented by academic, foundation, and business surveys,” as NEA chairman Dana Gioia explains in the preface, tells a story that is “simple, consistent, and alarming.”1 Americans are reading less; comprehension is eroding; and the consequences of these developments are ominous, inasmuch as reading is correlated with academic achievement, economic success, civic participation, and enjoyment of cultural activities. So far from improving the picture, higher education appears to contribute to it. For example, 63 percent of college seniors in 2004 read nothing or less than an hour a week for pleasure. This sorry figure is actually fourteen points higher than the percentage of this same cohort that had done little or no reading for pleasure as high school seniors.2

We asked a group of experts for their views on the study. They approach it from a variety of angles and even disagree somewhat, as you will see. Meanwhile, perhaps we can take heart from an article in the Christian Science Monitor that tells of a book circle at a shelter for homeless men in Cleveland. The men read both fiction and non-fiction at the rate of about two books a month, and are better able to understand their own experiences through reading. “We don’t have a TV we can carry around with us,” says club member Willie Griggs, who has had heart surgery and uses a cane. “We love books.”3

A Woeful Prospect

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322; [email protected] From 2003 to 2005 he served as director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His latest book is The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30 (Tarcher/Penguin, 2008).

When the National Endowment for the Arts report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America came out in July 2004, it sparked a national discussion about the place of literature in leisure life and popular culture.4 I was the director of the project, and Endowment chairman Dana Gioia was its spokesman, but we didn’t anticipate the publicity Reading at Risk garnered. In a few months’ time, in fact, more than six hundred notices and commentaries appeared, most of them accepting the study as accurately charting a decline in literary values, especially among young adults. Chairman Gioia spoke of the results on national news programs, and I gave some three dozen radio interviews and twenty conference presentations to concerned audiences around the country.

There were some skeptical rejoinders, however, many of them, interestingly enough, from the professional ranks. Some librarians objected that the study defined literature too narrowly, two of them claiming at one meeting I attended that they now include graphic texts such as anime and manga in the category. Folks in the digital technology world protested that people read just as much as they ever did—not books but blogs, wikis, personal pages, chat rooms, etc., genres not picked up in the Endowment study. A few literature professors acknowledged the data but told people at the Endowment to cease wringing our hands, for the decline in literary reading was but a step in the ongoing evolution of culture. And some reading specialists simply denied the data entirely, as when a panelist at a convention of the International Reading Association followed my presentation with a talk stating that there was just as much evidence of decline in Reading at Risk as there was evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the invasion. He proceeded to attack Republicans for cutting funds for public schools, the real cause, to him, of disappointing reading habits and scores among teenagers.

Many of these responses were uninformed and reflexive, but some of them did raise salient questions about the nature and materials of reading. Furthermore, the sheer volume of replies to Reading at Risk indicated further inquiry was necessary. We had to broaden the picture of reading, address the substantive skepticisms, and collect more data.

The result is To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, released November 2007.5 Again, the Arts Endowment research team, now led by Sunil Iyengar, paints a gloomy picture of reading trends, and the report has issued in more than three hundred news clips in the three months after its release. The report, however, does not include any new data on reading habits from the agency. Instead, it gathers data on reading from every other major organization that has compiled its own research on the issue. They include:

  • Public agencies

    • ○ U.S. Department of Education

    • ○ National Assessment of Adult Literacy

    • ○ Bureau of Labor Statistics

    • ○ Census Bureau

  • Research centers at

    • ○ UCLA

    • ○ University of Michigan

    • ○ Indiana University

  • Private organizations

    • ○ College Board

    • ○ Achieve, Inc.

  • Foundations and non-profits

    • ○ Kaiser Foundation

    • ○ Pew Research Center

    • ○ Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

    • ○ Book Industry Study Group

Gioia observes in the preface, “Although most of this information is publicly available, it has never been assembled and analyzed as a whole.”6To Read or Not To Read, then, is currently the best compendium of empirical research on reading trends in different populations. The full set of reports and findings covers all ages, students at several grade levels, how much they read and how much they like to read, how much money they spend on books, their multitasking, how reading affects their job prospects...and much, much more.

The variety of sources and approaches to reading habits, it turns out, doesn’t alter the conclusions of Reading at Risk. Despite the divergent aims and outlooks of the reporting institutions, the finding is consistent. People—especially young people—read less, and they read less well, than they used to. Here are a few striking numbers:

  • Average reading scores for twelfth graders dropped six points from 1992 to 2005

  • Average annual spending on reading materials as a percentage of overall entertainment spending dropped by half from 1995 to 2005 (10.1 to 5.3 percent)

  • 27 percent of first-year college students didn’t read a book, any book, on their own in the preceding year; 55 percent only read one to four books

  • From 1984 to 2004, the percentage of high school seniors who “never or hardly ever” read for fun more than doubled (9 to 19 percent)

  • From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of college graduates rated proficient in reading fell from 40 to 31 percent

  • In 2002, 43 percent of literary readers volunteered or did charity work; only 16 percent of non-readers did

These findings answer the challenges raised earlier. To those who charged that Reading at Risk overemphasized literature, we have abundant evidence of decline in all kinds of texts. To those who believe that young people have transferred their reading habit to the Internet, we have surveys asking generic questions about “reading for fun”—that is, reading anywhere, off-line or on. More and more young people don’t like to read, period.

The non-reading trends have consequences far beyond the literary/humanities worlds. First of all, a less literate generation means a less productive workforce. In an Information Age that requires more Knowledge Workers, bad reading habits leave younger workers with inadequate job skills, and force businesses to train them in literacy skills they should have acquired during adolescence. Indeed, a report by the College Board a while back estimated that U.S. corporations spend more than three billion dollars annually on writing/communications help for employees.

Second, lower reading rates damage civic life. Reading correlates with higher volunteerism, as well as with more involvement in social activities such as attendance at sporting events. Among people of the same education level, for instance, the Arts Endowment found that literary readers were three times more likely than non-readers to volunteer. Furthermore, as the Founders well understood, a healthy democracy requires an informed citizenry, a population jealous of its prerogatives. If people don’t read newspapers or books about U.S. history, or statements of civic principle, they have weaker grounds for judging their representatives. A tuned-out populace ends up with the government it deserves.

The seriousness of these implications, combined with the copiousness of the data, lays the burden of argument on the skeptics and relativists and digiti-philes. We hear much about the creative new literacies young people are forging on Web 2.0, the participatory medium that allows users not just to download but to upload, read and write, keep informed and talk back. Here is a typical fulmination from EDUCAUSE Quarterly:

With the advent of a new millennium and the rapidity with which technology has changed society, the concept of literacy has assumed new meanings. Experts in the field suggest that the current generation of teenagers—sometimes referred to as the E-Generation—possesses digital competencies to effectively navigate the multidimensional and fast-paced digital environment. For generations of adults who grew up in a world of books, traveling through cyberspace seems as treacherous and intimidating as speaking a new language.7

This is a historic claim—that the very nature of literacy is changing—and with it comes a bold competency reversal (kids are literate, adults less so), but the assertions pop up often in digital discourse. Enthusiasts talk effusively about new visual literacies and e-literacy and what Educational Testing Service calls “ICT Literacy” (information and communications technology literacy), and all agree that young people possess it most. But why, then, do teens perform no better than their elders did on basic reading comprehension exams? Video game enthusiasts insist that playing games can actually enhance intelligence, but why do young people show so little curiosity about books and ideas and knowledge? In a Boston Globe story on libraries, one librarian stated, “We consider listening to the audio books reading,”8 but why haven’t literacy scores budged despite all those earphones clamped in teenagers’ ears?

With so much data on low reading scores, high remedial course enrollments, measured knowledge deficits in history, civics, foreign affairs, and science, these sanguine pronouncements can no longer stand alone. The energy of the digiti-phile and the shrug of the cultural relativist, both of whom see nothing precious lost in the turn away from books, don’t seem so hip or sophisticated or benign when we recall the financial and civic costs of non-reading. To Read or Not To Read advances the discussion. Let’s see how skeptics who occupy professional spaces designed to sustain reading from generation to generation decide to engage it.

Readers Are Doers

Lynne Munson and Lauren Prehoda

Lynne Munson is president and executive director of Common Core, a new research and advocacy organization devoted to promoting liberal learning in America’s schools, 1016 16th Street NW, 7th Floor, Washington, DC 20036; [email protected] Lauren Prehoda is Common Core’s research assistant; [email protected]

One does not have to look far beyond one’s own hectic world to sense that reading great literature is not on many people’s to-do list. Still, it is always sad to see it confirmed. The National Endowment for the Arts report, To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, confirms that reading is on the ropes.9 Reading rates are down at all age levels, important reading-related skills are absent from the workplace, and people watch too much TV. It is disheartening.

Common Core is a research and advocacy group recently formed to fight such trends. Whether it is the lack of reading, a dearth of basic historical knowledge, or science and music getting pushed from the classroom, we will be in the trenches, pushing for access to the liberal arts and sciences for all Americans.

What struck us most when reading To Read or Not To Read was how much the report revealed about people who do read great literary works. The data from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts revealed that people who read classic literature are involved in many activities above and beyond their love of books, shattering the stereotype of the nerdy bookworm withdrawn and disconnected from the world outside the covers of his leather-bound tome.

For instance, the report notes that literary readers get involved in a lot of physical activities. They are thirty-two percentage points more likely to exercise than non-readers, and nineteen percentage points more likely to engage in outdoor activities such as hiking or canoeing. Readers are fourteen percentage points more likely to play sports than non-readers, and they are even seventeen percentage points more likely merely to go and watch a soccer match or ballgame.10

Participation Rates for Literary Readers in 2002


Literary readers


Gap between groups

Attend sporting events



−17 pp

Play sports



−14 pp




−32 pp

Do outdoor activities



−19 pp

pp = percentage points

Source: National Endowment for the Arts

Literary readers are also more likely to reach out to their community. They volunteer three times as often as non-readers, even when important factors like education level, age, gender, and ethnicity are taken into consideration. Moreover, the better the reader, the more they volunteer. Proficient readers are thirty-nine percentage points more likely to volunteer than basic level readers.11

Readers simply do more. They vote more, go to concerts more often, pay more attention to current events, and are even more likely just to go out and see a movie.12 They are active, involved, alert people who live richly.

Why is this? What is it about reading great literature that lends itself to such an active lifestyle? We believe that reading good books opens people up. It broadens an individual’s experience. It creates connections to others whom the reader has never encountered or previously even considered. It stretches and enlivens the imagination, and reveals new ideas to get excited about and share. It, quite simply, expands your base of knowledge. In short, it makes the reader realize that there is a great big world out there.

This is what we at Common Core want. There are many important reasons to read and to acquire a deep knowledge of the liberal arts and sciences. These include economic arguments of individual earning potential and overall national competitiveness, civic arguments of personal involvement and the fate of the body politic, and social arguments pertaining to communication between disparate groups. But above and beyond these valid and weighty reasons, we want people to read and become broadly educated so that they can achieve their full potential and enjoy life.

Our society needs to change its perception of reading. We are not talking bookworms here. Readers are active people—the doers of this world. If young people want to live extraordinary lives they should look at these people and take a page from their book. Literally.

The more that you read, the more things you will know.

The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

—Dr. Seuss13

Content Counts

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky is Professor of Education Reform, 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701; [email protected]

The National Endowment of the Arts’ latest report, To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence,14 presents an array of evidence from independent national sources showing negative trends in voluntary reading and reading skills at all educational levels in this country. Unlike the 2004 report, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,15 which addressed the decline in voluntary literary reading, the November 2007 report covers voluntary reading of any kind. It is not clear whether a decline in voluntary reading leads to a decline in reading skill, or vice versa, or whether it’s a chicken/egg question. But it is surprising to find few, if any, commentators who suspect that the school curriculum may be influencing both factors.

Surveying responses to the report via Google, I found a complete range of views on the two findings—from commentators who were decidedly skeptical that there was any “crisis in reading” (e.g., “it all depends on how reading is defined”) to others who accepted the report’s findings and viewed them as a serious matter. Interestingly, reviewers from the academic world such as Leah Price, an English professor writing in the New York Times,16 or Stephen Krashen, an emeritus professor of education blogging on the DA Pulse of District Administration, a magazine “for K-12 education leaders,”17 tend to see no crisis. Price attempts to comfort readers with the idea that the unavoidable need to read labels, lists, bookkeeping records, and memos will keep reading alive, while Krashen accuses the NEA of misreporting the data it reviewed or ignoring alternative findings.

I found few commentators dwelling on the far more socially significant finding in the NEA report—the decline in reading skills. One of the few, Caleb Crain, took on this issue in a remarkable scholarly essay in the New Yorker.18 Using the decline in reading ability as his point of departure, he offered what he could glean from independent studies and from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (HarperCollins, 2007), on the intellectual consequences of learning to read and being able to read. It seems that learning to read and becoming a fluent reader do affect the development of the brain. “The secret at the heart of reading,” Crain quotes from Wolf’s conclusion to her book, is “the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before.”19 Wolf thus, indirectly, makes the case for the benefits of frequent, voluntary reading; technical proficiency (speed and accuracy) in reading makes more time available for thinking about what has been read. In her interpretation, fluent reading facilitates understanding and performance in much the same way that fluent use of mathematical, musical, or athletic skills does.

Of much greater importance but less clear from the studies Crain found on his own or from the research reported in Wolf’s book is whether what one reads—and writes—makes a difference in intellectual development. There are hints from a few studies comparing cognitive skills in children or adults both with and without reading and writing skills that it does, and Crain carefully notes the research suggesting that “secondary orality and literacy don’t mix.”20 That is, we learn more by reading than by listening to staged or shaped information. Studies of adults show, for example, that people who read transcripts of television newscasts, political programs, and science shows recall more information than those who just watch the shows. Conversely, a high degree of television watching negatively affects language learning; babies learn fewer words. Older children learn less in reading, science, and math, although it is not clear exactly how reduced reading time leads to less academic learning (e.g., if it means less exposure to complex vocabulary and syntax). Are preliterate people or, by extension to the contemporary educational scene, poor readers and writers, less intellectually developed than those who can read and write or those who do certain kinds of reading and writing? For over forty years, psychologists, anthropologists, and others have gingerly explored this sensitive territory, without definitive results. The best kind of “evidence” turns out to be passionate but personal paeons to the “culture of the book,” for example Sven Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber and Faber, 1994).

Although readers like Birkerts see “autonomous self-hood” developed by the experience of reading and by certain kinds of reading, the academic commentators on To Read or Not To Read managed to avoid addressing the core curriculum issue that it raises. Readers might easily infer from Price’s and Krashen’s comments, for example, that the quality of what one reads makes little difference—or that judgments about quality can be made. Exercising a “process” is all that matters, whether it’s exercised on pornography, a grocery list, a Jane Austen novel, or the Internet. Indeed, the technology age is presented by scoffing critics of the NEA report as possibly leading to more reading than a non-technological era did.

Yet, the decline in reading ability in adolescents and among recent college graduates, who are probably much heavier users of technology than are older college graduates, suggests that what one reads matters even if the amount of reading “exercise” remains constant or increases. According to the latest assessment of adult literacy in this country, released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in December 2005, the reading skills of younger American adults dramatically declined from 1992 to 2003. Those in the age ranges of eighteen to twenty-four and twenty-four to thirty-nine showed a decline in prose reading and document reading, two of the three kinds of literacy assessed by NCES. However, those in the two oldest age ranges, from age fifty up, showed increases at both the intermediate and proficient levels, not only in prose and document reading but also in quantitative reasoning, the third kind of literacy assessed by NCES.

What is striking is that the decline in literacy skills among the college graduates and those with graduate study or degrees rated “proficient” was confined to males. The percentage of highly educated males rated “proficient” in all three kinds of literacy assessed declined. In contrast, the percentage of highly educated females rated “proficient” in the first two kinds of literacy remained the same, and in the third kind increased somewhat.

That the decline in reading skills is more a young male than a young female phenomenon is supported by the trend data for almost the identical period from the assessments of high school reading achievement by the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). The 2005 NAEP main reading assessment found the score gap between twelfth-grade boys and girls greater in 2005 than it was in 1992, when the main tests were first given. According to NAEP’s main tests, both genders have lost ground, but males much more than females.21 Similarly, NAEP’s long-term trend tests, which began in the early 1970s, show a steady downward trend for seventeen-year-olds from a high point in 1988–1990, with a slightly larger score gap between boys’ and girls’ average scores today on these tests than on the main tests.

Beyond the claim that the use of computers, the Internet, and other technologies entails as much reading as books once required, many educational researchers suggest that the use of these new technologies leads to the development of new intellectual skills altogether, such as those that relate to hypertexting.22 If these skills are a possible substitute for pre-technology literacy skills, and content makes no difference, then how do we explain the growing gender gap, as well as the overall decline in reading skills? Males, not females, are the stereotypical computer “nerds.” It is not at all clear on what basis these new skills could be considered more valuable than the usual skills.

Even if the possibility that voluntary reading has declined is an unacceptable thought, why didn’t the idea occur to more skeptics of the NEA report that the decline in reading skills might reflect a decline in the schools in the kind of content that nourishes its development? It seems to be an accepted fact that the causes of decline are external to the schools and beyond our control. This myth conveniently lets a chief “cause” off the hook. Reading and English educators and the professional organizations they belong to, such as the National Council of Teachers of English or the International Reading Association, strongly shape the pedagogy used by K-12 English and reading teachers and the content of their textbooks. The findings of To Read or Not To Read have to reflect their decades-long influence on the English and reading curriculum in our public schools, as well as broader social influences. And this influence has clearly not been positive, to judge by national indices.

Even though on average boys have always done less well than girls in reading and writing, and there are strong and consistent differences in their reading preferences and in what they like to write about, English classes have become hostile to boys’ interests. This hostility manifests itself in the texts boys are often asked to read (e.g., Kate Chopin, “The Story of an Hour” or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”), the topics they are asked to write about, and the approaches to literary study teachers use. In one common approach, “reader response,” teachers stress an emotional response to the literary text, something boys tend not to enjoy. In another, teachers choose literary and nonliterary texts to promote social justice, not the pleasure of reading. Teachers are more likely to ask middle school students to read Sarah Plain and Tall (about a mail-order bride in the nineteenth-century West) or The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (about a thirteen-year-old girl’s adventures on the high seas) than Treasure Island or Kidnapped (which both boys and girls enjoy). There is clearly no evidence that either boys or girls have benefited academically from reading the Young Adult Literature (YAL) flooding middle school English programs. (The topics treated in this easy-to-read fiction run the gamut of social disorders in a sociology handbook). Nor is there evidence that American students have become genuine “critical thinkers” after long-term exposure to the ideologically driven “critical” pedagogy in their school textbooks.23

Unfortunately, federal mandates for accountability contain no incentives for states to assess reading with passages from the works of authors who wrote to stimulate young readers’ minds and imaginations, not to moralize. Being able to read well is a function of regular reading and the quality of what one reads. Unless the NEA’s call to action can lead to a drastic reduction of the influence of the moralizing pedagogues in our education schools on our public schools, their teachers, their textbooks, and state and federal assessments, there is little reason to expect an upturn in the voluntary reading of texts of increasing length, thematic complexity, and vocabulary difficulty, and consequent improvement in reading skills. Indeed, given the NCTE’s embrace of the notion of “multiple literacies” (in particular, using “graphic novels,” a.k.a. comic books, to promote “visual” literacy, especially in minority students—a condescending idea if ever there was one), it’s more likely that reading skills will continue to stagnate or decline.24

Not So Bad

Jay P. Greene

Jay P. Greene is Endowed Chair of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; [email protected] He is the author, with Greg Forster and Marcus A. Winters, of Education Myths (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).

The evidence is unambiguous that there has been a significant change in reading behavior over the last few decades. The figures presented in the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report, To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence,25 show that the frequency with which people read voluntarily has sharply declined. Reading for pleasure by all age groups is far less common that it was in the 1980s and 1990s. What is less clear from the report is what has caused this decline, what, if anything, can be done about it, and how important the changes in reading behavior really are.

As to what caused the decline in reading activity, the culprit does not appear to be a decline in reading skill. Despite the NEA report’s efforts to suggest that skills have been in decline, the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows no change in reading scores for seventeen-year-olds between 1971, when the test was first administered, and 2004, the most recent test. The level of achievement fluctuated slightly during that period, reaching a peak scale score of 290 out of a possible 500 between 1988 and 1992, before slipping back to 285 in 2004, exactly where it began almost three decades earlier.

Neither the pattern nor the magnitude of the declines in reading behavior matches the fluctuations in reading skill. For example, the percentage of 25 to 34-year-olds reading a book not required for work or school declined from 64 percent in 1992 to 59 percent in 2002. The 25 to 34-year-olds observed in 2002 were 17 between 1985 and 1994, when reading scores reached their peak (if we can call a slight bump a peak). There were comparable declines in reading voluntarily among people who were 17 before that peak, when scores were increasing, as well as those who were 17 after the peak, when scores were declining. In other words, there appears to be no relationship between trends in reading skills, as measured by NAEP, and trends in reading behavior. The NEA report only implies otherwise because it misleadingly selected the peak years in NAEP scores as the base for comparisons.

On average, Americans possess as much reading skill as they did over three decades ago. They aren’t reading less because they are less capable readers; they are reading less because they are choosing not to read. There are two likely suspects in producing this change in desire to read. One suspect is the failure of schools and parents to cultivate a love of reading in young people. We may be as effective at conveying basic reading skills to the next generation, but perhaps we have failed at conveying the benefits of reading itself. The other suspect is that alternative activities, including watching TV and movies, playing videogames, and surfing the Internet have become more attractive over time than reading books. In all likelihood, the cause of the decline in reading behavior is some combination of our failure to “push” young people toward reading and the “pull” of engaging in activities other than reading. Of those two, I would guess that the “pull” of other activities has by far been the more important factor.

If it’s true that people are reading less because they prefer to watch TV and movies, play videogames, and surf the Internet, it’s not obvious what can be done to alter the situation. The availability and lure of these media will only increase over time. It is hard to imagine books similarly improving in quality and availability. And while schools and parents could improve their efforts at cultivating a love of reading, it is extremely unlikely that this “push” would fully offset the pull of alternative media. Even the NEA report has no concrete proposals to offer about how to stem the decline in reading behavior. Despite NEA chairman Dana Gioia’s description of the report as a “call to action” in his preface, no actions are actually called for other than a “serious discussion.” After serious discussion we may find that trends in reading behavior can only be altered on the margins, not fundamentally changed.

This brings us to the likely consequences of a decline in reading behavior. Here the NEA report overstates its case. To be sure, there are benefits that are unique to the reading of books. Reading is a more active intellectual experience than watching TV or movies. Reading requires the reader to form mental images in his or her own head. Reading places greater demands on attention span and vocabulary. Reading is important—very important.

But Gioia goes too far when he asserts that if “America continues to lose the habit of regular reading, the nation will suffer substantial economic, social, and civic setbacks.”26 None of the evidence presented in the report demonstrates a serious decline in the nation’s economic, social or civic standing as a result of a decline in reading behavior. The report does provide evidence that reading skill is related to employment prospects. But that is reading skill, not the frequency with which people read books. As we have already seen, reading skill has remained roughly flat over time even as the reading of books has declined. Of course, we would likely enhance our economy by improving reading skills, but it is not clear that there is a relationship between the frequency with which people read books and the strength of our economy.

The report also demonstrates a correlation between reading behavior and cultural activity. People who don’t read books are less likely to go to museums and concerts. But the text of the report is careful to emphasize that these correlations do not demonstrate a causal relationship. It may well be that people who have acquired a stronger taste for reading books also enjoy museums and concerts. Changing reading behavior is unlikely to have much effect on museum or concert attendance. Museum and concert attendance are threatened by the same media activities that lure people away from reading.

Gioia also goes too far because there is no reason to assume that the reading of books will disappear. Reading books has intrinsic appeal, so people will continue to do it. Reading has declined because some of what people liked about reading has been replaced by the benefits they derive from watching TV or movies, playing videogames, or surfing the Internet. We should have confidence that the attraction of these other activities do not completely substitute for the reading of books. So, there is no reason to project current trends in declining reading forever into the future. It is precisely because reading books has economic, social, and civic benefits that people will continue to be attracted to reading, at least to some extent.

Lastly, Gioia goes too far in warning about the dangers of declining reading behavior because he fails to acknowledge the economic, social, and civic benefits of the activities that have taken the place of reading. Not all television shows, movies, videogames, and web sites are lacking in economic, social, and civic value. Conversely, not all books are rich in those benefits. It is not at all clear what books are being read less and what alternative media are replacing them. If the reading of pulp detective stories has declined while watching Law and Order has increased, what are the economic, social, and civic implications of this switch? To assess the implications we would have to compare the quality of the content, not just the medium by which it is conveyed.

We have good reason to believe that the quality of these alternative media has significantly increased, offsetting to some degree what has been lost from the decline in reading. For example, current television programs, like Lost, are strikingly complex in their plots, vocabulary, and cultural references. Even comedies, like Seinfeld or Scrubs, offer fairly challenging content. Movies, like Memento or Signs, can explore questions of philosophy or religion with remarkable depth. The Internet is filled with much that is trivial, but it also contains a wealth of useful information to strengthen civic engagement.

If Shakespeare were alive today he’d probably be writing movies, not plays. Millions could see his work, not just a few hundred at a time in London. And even Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen and heard, not read. Shakespeare’s love sonnets might well be songs. Without assessing the change in the average quality of content, it is not obvious how much the decline in reading threatens our economic, social, and civic life.

To be clear, something is lost when reading declines. There are benefits that are unique to the experience of reading that cannot be captured in the same way by other media. But something was also lost when we stopped listening to epic poets like Homer recite their work. Reading Homer is not quite the same thing.

We should avoid the temptation to act like fuddy-duddies who wax nostalgically for a golden era that never was. Not all changes are declines. On the other hand, we should always be striving for improvement and avoid easy rationalizations for troubling problems. Assessing the causes and consequences of the decline in reading behavior will require the serious discussion called for in the NEA report and which this forum may begin.27

The Hunting of the Snark

Erin O’Connor

Erin O’Connor is associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104; [email protected] She maintains Critical Mass, a weblog devoted to higher education issues at

Shortly after the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released its worrisome 2007 report on American reading habits, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, the New York Times ran a spirited refutation by Harvard English professor Leah Price.28

Collating a vast array of data, the NEA reports that Americans are not reading as much as they used to, and that younger Americans are reading far less than their elders. Almost half of Americans between eighteen and twenty-four do not read books for pleasure (5), 65 percent of college freshmen devote less than an hour a week to reading for fun (6), and even fewer college seniors read for pleasure (7). People between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four spend, on average, at least two hours a day watching TV—and about ten minutes per day on voluntary reading (8, 7). People aren’t buying books, and when they do read, they tend to do it in a desultory and distracted way, combining it with other activities such as watching TV or playing video games (9, 8). Noting that people who read on their own are more likely to stay in school, get good jobs, exercise, vote, volunteer, and stay out of jail, the NEA suggests that the decline in Americans’ voluntary reading may be taken as a warning sign about the future economic and civic health of our democracy (3–4).

Price—a scholar specializing in the history of reading—is unimpressed and unconvinced, arguing that the NEA is using a narrow definition of reading that ensures its troubling findings. The NEA ignores reading done for work or school, she observes, adding that it also ignores entire populations of readers (Bible studiers, porn consumers), excludes emailing and Web surfing as subsets of reading, and overlooks alternative methods of imbibing text, such as listening to audiobooks.

Reading is alive and well, Price suggests. It’s just located in settings (office, school, online), formats (memos, homework, emails), and styles (prayer, prurience, study, professional communication) that are beyond the NEA’s narrow and muddled ken. The NEA, she suggests, is manipulating data to create problems that don’t really exist. The real story, she argues, is not a dangerous decline in reading, but the NEA’s curmudgeonly and historically trite interest in spreading a catastrophic account of cultural deterioration.

Such accounts, Price argues, are as old as the mass reading public. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scare stories keying reading to moral decline emerged in medical literature, social reform writing, and popular journalism alongside that most popular of genres, the novel; they reflected anxieties about the democratization of literacy, paying particular attention to the dangers reading posed for women. Price duly cites voices familiar to any student of the era—the doctor who worries about the effect of reading on the nerves, the journalist who spreads the word that excess reading is unhealthy and corrupting, the authors who exploit the idea that women’s tender systems can neither tolerate nor resist the imaginative strains of novel-reading. The difference between now and then, Price says, is that where the scaremongers once worried about people reading too much, today they worry about people reading too little.

Price would have us believe that there is no problem except insofar as the NEA “perpetuates...confusion about what’s ‘at risk’” by skewing its definition of reading to support a hackneyed and shopworn thesis.29 But it’s worth examining both her reading and her history—because neither one can stand up to scrutiny.

Price has a point about the NEA’s definition of reading. Though the NEA is using a much more inclusive definition than it did in its 2004 study, Reading at Risk (which focused strictly on “literary reading”), its working definition ought to be broader still.30 But Price does not do responsible things with her insight. In using it to claim that the NEA is propagating an uninformed and naïve scare story—in essence to peddle panicky untruths in the service of some unspecified but certainly sinister agenda—she completely ignores what is perhaps the most striking aspect of the report: the NEA’s data about how drastically reading ability has declined in recent years.

Teenagers are not reading nearly as well as they used to, the NEA reports. Only about one-third of high school seniors reads proficiently, whereas in 1992, about 40 percent did (11). The reading gap between girls and boys is widening (12)—a fact that correlates suggestively with the widening gender gap among college students (today, women make up 56 percent of undergraduates; by 2012 that number is expected to reach 60 percent).31 Nearly one-third of American teenagers fails to graduate from high school (3); dropouts tend to be deficient readers (17). And college isn’t doing much to help those who do stay in school catch up. There is a broad overall decline in the reading abilities of college graduates and graduate students—since 1992, those who are proficient readers have declined by about 20 percent (12). Employers are feeling the pinch—finding many workers to be deficient in their reading and writing skills, they are spending billions on remediation (14). Moreover, deficient readers struggle to participate meaningfully in society—they are more likely to be stuck in low-level jobs, to be unemployed, and to spend time in prison (15–18). If reading ability is any indication of personal prospects in the information economy—and the NEA’s collected data shows that it is—then we are in for some troubled times as a nation.

This is the real issue the NEA is raising. As NEA chairman Dana Gioia puts it in the preface: “As Americans, especially younger Americans, read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they have lower levels of academic achievement....With lower levels of reading and writing ability, people do less well on the job market” (3). Gioia goes on to summarize the strong correlations between inadequate reading skills and unemployment, low wages, lack of opportunity, and civic disengagement. Yes, as Price points out, there are semantic problems with the notion that Americans “read less.” But those problems are absolutely secondary to the NEA’s core points: that Americans are reading poorly, and that poor reading skills predict poor lives.

None of this makes any impression on Price. Taking a staunchly literal stance toward “reading”—so that any act of using one’s eyes to decipher text “counts”—Price is more interested in finding fault with the NEA’s definitions than in thinking hard about the complex and difficult phenomenon the NEA is trying to document and describe. But To Read or Not To Read is not a stupid study. The NEA openly admits the difficulty of framing the problem—“the data in this report do not necessarily show cause and effect” (3)—and takes pains to qualify its claims. Nor is this study smug: “we issue this report not to dictate specific remedial policies,” Gioia writes, “but to initiate a serious discussion. It is no longer reasonable to debate whether the problem exists” (4). And yet, that’s exactly what Price does.

Carried away by her own quibbling cleverness—is the NEA worried about the fate of great literature or pulp fiction? Reading for pleasure or reading for a purpose? Reading books or reading ephemera?—Price concludes on a thoroughly reductive note: “The file, the list, the label, the memo: these are the genres that will keep reading alive. Whatever happens to the novel, we’ll always need a rule book.”32 That’s jarringly snide—as Price herself acknowledged in a discussion thread at if:book, the resident weblog of the Institute for the Future of the Book: “Middlebrow piety (from the NEA) provokes highbrow snark,” she wrote. “(I plead as guilty to this as anyone),” she added, inserting at the word “guilty” a hyperlink to her New York Times piece.33

But snark is not a reliable analytical posture. Privileging tone over substance, snark is an affective performance masquerading as an intellectual one; it’s fun to create snark, and it’s enjoyable to read snark that confirms one’s opinions. Far from a serious critical mode, snark is a gleeful pact among like-minded people who know they are being intellectually naughty. Snark purveyors tend to play fast and loose with facts; in return, snark enjoyers overlook specious reasoning. Both suspend their better judgment for the sake of a good sneer at people or ideas they agree are beneath them.

And so it happens with Price’s piece, which drew uncritical approval from Harvard lecturer and National Books Critics Circle board member Maureen McLane, from University of Maryland English professor Matthew Kirschenbaum, and others.34 Fixing on her point about reading (in some cases expanding it to argue that the NEA is engaged in a futile, reactionary struggle to resist digitization—despite Gioia’s explicit caveat, that the study “is not an elegy for the bygone days of print culture” (4). Price’s appreciators accept—in the approved manner of the snark compact—her skewed reading of the report. Along the way, they consent to her partial and tendentious history.

Sketching centuries of widespread and unnecessary panic about reading, Price suggests that history has always produced fussy critics given to alarmist accounts of impending cultural doom. That’s true enough; but it’s not the whole story. And while it was surely amusing to liken the NEA to a brooding, buttoned-up Victorian, it wasn’t very fair.

Consider what happens to Price’s argument if we look at history through a different lens. First, let’s supplement the silly carping of Price’s obscure quacks and commentators with the earnest, inspirational outlook of major figures such as Matthew Arnold and George Eliot. A poet, critic, and school inspector, Arnold believed deeply in public education, in the democratic benefits of studying “the best that has been thought and said,” and in the idea that knowledge liberates us by “turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”35 Eliot wrote eloquently about the power of the realist novel to improve human relations by “awakening our social sympathies.”36 Both, in their own cautious, reserved ways, devoted their lives to the idea that reading can set people—and society—free.

Now, let’s shift focus from Price’s idle, enervated girls panting over their gothic novels to serious working-class autodidacts for whom books offered immensely meaningful access to history, beauty, ideas, and, crucially, a community of fellow readers that transcended time, space, and class.37 Unlike Price’s archetypal young ladies, these readers have names. There was Will Crooks, a poor London laborer who spent tuppence on a used Iliad and found himself “transported from the East End to an enchanted land.” There was G. A. W. Tomlinson, a Nottinghamshire collier who whiled away his time in the mines reading Chaucer, Darwin, and Wilde. There was Margaret Powell, a London housemaid who immersed herself in Proust, Dickens, and Conrad when she wasn’t cleaning.38

These people were by no means alone. As Jonathan Rose shows in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, they were part of a vital English subculture of workers who found strength, inspiration, and vision in reading. Their lives were changed by the power of the written word to delight, educate, provoke, and inspire; to lift people out of themselves; to enable them to imagine better lives; and even to empower them to make those imagined lives real. Crooks went on to become an MP for Woolwich. Likewise, Manchester North East MP J. R. Clynes began life in the bleak Oldham cotton mills; Shakespeare gave him the clarity and sense of purpose he needed to improve his circumstances. The spectacularly successful English novelist Catherine Cookson started off as a laundress; she attributed her change of fortune to a library card and the works of Lord Chesterfield. These and many others read as if their lives depended on it—because they did.

And so we complement Price’s insular portrait of pointless worry with a revealing glimpse at how reading can anchor and enrich civil society, expanding the imagination, encouraging thought, giving hope, and sustaining determination to make a better life in a better world. This historical vantage point, in turn, offers an important corrective to Price’s perspective on the NEA report. The NEA’s sensibility has much more in common with Arnold and Eliot than with Price’s crotchety, forgotten moralists; it may even be said to have its origins in the expansive liberalism of Victorian thinkers who believed that reading was the key to a better future. Likewise, the NEA’s concerns about the disappearance of serious leisure reading and the associated decline in reading abilities acquire a sober historical weight when we think of what reading meant for the happiness and prospects of disenfranchised but newly literate people living more than a century ago—and of what it can still mean for those lucky enough to learn how to do it well.

Just ask Rafe Esquith, a fifth-grade teacher at the nation’s second-largest grade school, Los Angeles’ Hobart Boulevard Elementary School. Esquith’s classroom has become an intellectual haven for impoverished children from some of L.A.’s roughest neighborhoods. Most of Esquith’s students come from immigrant backgrounds and speak English as a second language. But they start school at 7:00 a.m. and stay until 5:00 p.m.; they come to school on Saturdays; and they learn. Their test scores are consistently among the best in the nation. And Shakespeare sits at the core of their curriculum. Every year, Esquith’s students read, discuss, debate, and perform a Shakespeare play. Esquith doesn’t just teach his students to read Shakespeare; he uses their study of Shakespeare to teach them to respect themselves, to honor their potential, to work hard, and to expect to go on to college—which they do. The Hobart Shakespeareans, as they are known, are living out the vision of seers such as Matthew Arnold. They are also, as the NEA data demonstrates, exceptions to our increasingly illiterate rule.39

Price’s critique of the NEA report was hailed as “witty” and “incisive” (in the National Books Critics Circle Board of Directors’ blog), “salty” (in the New York Times Book Review editors’ blog), and “excellent” (in Kenyon Review’s blog).40 Read against the backdrop of avid, upwardly mobile readers, however, it emerges for the creepily cavalier insult to human potential that it is. We might as well abandon the project of humanism altogether, if Price is to be our guide. After all, who needs Shakespeare when we have files, labels, memos, and lists of things to do? Surely not the kids in Rafe Esquith’s classroom.

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