Is Reading Really at Risk?
It depends on what the meaning of reading is.
August 16, 2004
By Myron Magnet
"READING AT RISK" is one of those hardy perennials, a government survey telling us that in some vital area--obesity, pollution, fuel depletion, quality of education, domestic relations--things are even worse than we thought. In the category of literacy, the old surveys seemed always to be some variant of "Why Johnny Can't Read." "Reading at Risk"-- the most recent survey, carried out under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its larger Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the whole conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau--doesn't for a moment suggest that Johnny Can't Read. The problem is that, now grown, Johnny (though a little less Jane) doesn't much care to read a lot in the way of imaginative writing--fiction, poems, plays--also known to the survey as literature. For the first time in our history, apparently, less than half the population bothers to read any literature (so defined) at all.
Such surveys are as meat and drink--perhaps pot and coke might be more precise--to editorialists, who can usually be counted upon to discover their findings anywhere from worrying to alarming to frightening. They haul out their best solemn tone; words such as "distressing" and "grave concern" and "dire" are brought into play; look for "threat to democratic society" to pop up with some frequency; nor will "crisis" be in short supply; "serious action," one need scarcely add, is called for. Nothing remains, really, but to ring up the livery service and order the handbasket in which we, along with the culture, shall all presently ride off to hell.
"Reading at Risk" reports that there has been a decline in the reading of novels, poems, and plays of roughly 10 percentage points for all age cohorts between 1982 and 2002, with actual numbers of readers having gained only slightly despite a large growth (of 40 million people) in the overall population. More women than men continue to participate in what the survey also calls literary reading--in his trip to the United States in 1905, based on attendance at his lectures, Henry James noted that culture belonged chiefly to women--though even among women the rate is slipping. Nor are things better among the so-called educated; while they do read more than the less educated, the decline in literary reading is also found among them. But the rate of decline is greatest among young adults 18 to 24 years old, and the survey quotes yet another study, this one made by the National Institute for Literacy, showing that things are not looking any better for kids between 13 and 17, but are even a little worse.
Although the general decline in literary reading is not attributed to any single cause in "Reading at Risk," the problem, it is hinted, may be the distractions of electronic culture. To quote an item from the survey's executive summary: "A 1999 study showed that the average American child lives in a household with 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players, and 1 computer." By 2002, to quote from the same summary, "electronic spending had soared to 24 percent [of total recreational spending by Americans], while spending on books declined . . . to 5.6 percent." Up against all this easily accessible and endlessly varied fare--from Palm Pilots to iPods--the reading of stories, poems, and plays is having a tough time competing.
MANY OF THE FACTS set out in "Reading at Risk" are less than shocking. Whites do more literary reading than do blacks, who do more than Hispanic Americans, though the rate of reading in all three groups goes up with family income. Concomitantly, the rich and the college-educated do more literary reading than people less well-off or less trained to read through advanced schooling. People who do such reading also tend to go to a lot more--roughly three times more--art museums, plays, concerts, operas, and other performing-arts events; they also participate more in civic affairs generally. Among the divisions of literary reading, fiction is read by roughly 96 million people (or 45 percent of the population), some form of poetry by 25 million people (or 12 percent of the population), while plays are read by 7 million people (or 4 percent of the population). The results of the "2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts " show that literary reading, then, is still a popular but declining leisure activity.
"Reading at Risk" does provide a few not exactly surprises but slight jars to one's expectations. For me, one is that "people in managerial, professional, and technical occupations are more likely to read literature than those in other occupation groups." I would myself have expected that these were all jobs in which one worked more than an eight-hour day and then took work home, which, consequently, would allow a good deal less time for reading things not in some way related to one's work. The survey also claims that readers are "highly social people," more active in their communities and participating more in sports. I should have thought that lots of reading might make one introspective, slightly detached, a touch reclusive, even, but, according to the survey, not so. "People who live in the suburbs," the survey states, "are more likely to be readers than either those who live in the city or the country." Perhaps this is owing in good part to suburbs' being generally more affluent than cities; and, too, to book clubs, in which neighbors meet to discuss recent bestsellers and sometimes classics, and which tend to be suburban institutions.
The one area in which "Reading at Risk" is (honorably) shaky is in its conclusions on the subject of television, which is the standard fall-guy in almost all surveys having to do with education. Only among people who watch more than four hours of television daily does the extent of reading drop off, according to the survey, while watching no television whatsoever makes it more likely one will be a more frequent reader. On the other hand, the presence of writers on television--on C-SPAN and talk shows--may, the survey concedes, encourage people to buy books. No mention is made of those people, myself among them, who are able to read with a television set, usually playing a sports event, humming away in the background.
In the end, "Reading at Risk" concludes that "it is not clear from [its] data how much influence TV watching has on literary reading." The survey does suggest that surfing the Internet may have made a dent in reading: "During the time period when the literature participation rates declined, home Internet use soared." But it does not take things further than that.
One mildly depressing finding of the survey is that the only increase in putatively literary activity is in the realm of creative writing. "In 1982, about 11 million people did some form of creative writing. By 2002, this number had risen to almost 15 million people (18 or older), an increase of about 30 percent." This is owing in part to the increase of creative-writing courses in universities and community colleges ("creative writing is most common among those under 25"); and perhaps, regrettably, to the increase of falsely inflated personal self-esteem, in which altogether too many people feel, quite wrongly, that they are artistic. (An earlier survey, run by a vanity-press company, claimed that 80 percent of Americans felt they had a book in them, which is also, in my view, bad news.) In any case, the rise in creative writing set alongside the decrease in the reading of literature suggests that there is some truth to the old quip that holds one can either read or write books, one can't really do both.
TWO POINTS of great importance about "Reading at Risk," and which cripple its significance, need to be underscored: first, that in its findings the quality of the reading being done is not taken into consideration; and, second, neither has serious nonfiction been tabulated. As for the quality of reading, the survey presumably counted mysteries, science fiction, bodice-ripping romances, and sentimental poetry as literature. The literature being read, in the reckoning of the survey, is, then, fairly likely not to be of a serious nature: More Tom Clancy than Ivan Turgenev is doubtless being registered, more Maya Angelou than Marianne Moore. The thought that 96 million people in our happily philistine country are regularly reading literature, even though it might represent a decline over 20 years earlier, would still be impressive, except for the fact that we don't know how many of them are reading, not to put too fine a point on it, crap.
The surveyors probably had no choice here, for setting a standard of what constitutes reading of genuine literary merit would entail vast complication: One can see a committee of literary panjandrums arguing into the night about whether to include, say, the novels of Alice Walker or John Galsworthy or Gore Vidal. But excluding serious nonfiction is perhaps a more radical problem. One could be reading a steady diet of St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson, and John Ruskin and fall outside the boundaries of what the report calls "literary" readers. Given this exclusion, who can be certain that, for example, George Kennan, Jacques Barzun, or the late J. Robert Oppenheimer would qualify as among the survey's readers of literature?
A great many people, of course, do a vast amount of reading, chiefly in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet, but little of it in books and none of it in the realm of imaginative literature. For people who want merely information--just, or mainly, the facts, ma'am--there is no reason to presume that it is best available in the form of books. People bring so many motives to their reading--the need for consolation, the search for pleasure, a quest for the reinforcement of one's prejudices, the hunt for truth and wisdom--and no one can say with any certainty what they take away from it.
Still, skewed though "Reading at Risk" may be by these two items, the demographic fact remains that the audience for the reading of novels, poems, and plays, even junky ones, fell over the past 20 years from 56 percent to 47 percent of the nation's population. The decline, moreover, was across the board: "In fact," the survey has it, "literary reading rates decreased for men, women, all ethnic and racial groups, all education groups, and all age groups."
My own speculation is that our speeded-up culture--with its FedEx, fax, email, channel surfing, cell-phoning, fast-action movies, and other elements in its relentless race against boredom--has ended in a shortened national attention span. The quickened rhythms of new technology are not rhythms congenial to the slow and time-consuming and solitary act of reading. Sustained reading, sitting quietly and enjoying the aesthetic pleasure that words elegantly deployed on the page can give, contemplating careful formulations of complex thoughts--these do not seem likely to be acts strongly characteristic of an already jumpy new century.
FOR ALL ITS SHORTCOMINGS, "Reading at Risk" has nonetheless permitted some wild jeremiads. The most extreme reaction to the survey I have seen was in an op-ed piece by Andrew Solomon in the New York Times. Under the ominous title of "The Closing of the American Book," playing off Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Solomon sets out what he feels are the frightening implications for a nation in which the reading of literature is radically in decline. The author of an autobiographical book on depression, Solomon believes that the passive activity of watching television, and not reading, is a serious factor in the spread of depression in our day. Escalating levels of Alzheimer's, too, he feels can be ascribed to the lack of engagement of adult minds of the kind that reading is supposed to provide. What the decline in the reading of literature really means, according to Andrew Solomon, is that "the crisis in reading is a crisis in national health." Not reading, I believe he is saying, is bad for your health.
If that sounds a bit loony, don't be surprised, for reading is one of those subjects that, like religion, quickly get people worked up, their virtue glands pumping. Perhaps it is not going too far to say that for some people, reading is their religion. In the July 19, 2004, Chicago Tribune, W.Ralph Eubanks used the occasion of the publication of "Reading at Risk" to blame the Patriot Act, through its implication that reading is dangerous, for its potential for further discouraging reading. "These two events are completely unrelated," writes Eubanks, director of publishing for the Library of Congress, who then proceeds to attempt to relate them. Eubanks reports that "at the heart of the NEA survey is the belief that our democratic system depends on leaders who can think critically, analyze texts, and write clearly." If this were true, the United States would have been done for around the time of Andrew Jackson.
W. Ralph Eubanks's statement reminds me of the time I sat on a panel on government and the arts with the playwright Edward Albee, who opened the proceeding by blithely announcing that, until such time as every member of Congress had a solid education in the arts, the country was in danger of lapsing into fascism. Eubanks himself lapses into mere self-congratulation, writing: "I learned to think clearly by reading great literature, even books that contained ideas I disagreed with or that disturbed me."
People who openly declare themselves passionate readers are, like Eubanks, usually chiefly stating their own virtue, and hence superiority, and hence, though they are unaware of it, snobbery. "So many books and so little time," reads a T-shirt that shows up occasionally at the farmer's market to which I go. "I adore reading," I have had people tell me, and then go from there to reveal that much of what they read is schlock, and of a fairly low order even for schlock. Young parents who read to their infant children are always delighted to report that the kids are mad for books; they take it as a sign, a premonition of brilliance and success ahead.
The assumption--and it is also the assumption behind "Reading at Risk"--is that reading is, per se, good. But is it, immitigably and always? Surely everything depends upon what is being read and the degree of perspicacity brought to the task. Even so powerful a reader as Samuel Johnson claimed that his indulgent reading of romances deepened his plunge into depression.
The unspoken assumption of Oprah's Book Club, which has gone back into business, is that reading, like broccoli or sound dental hygiene, is intrinsically good for you. Something, albeit of minimal significance, to it, I suppose, but very minimal. When you are reading, after all, you are, ipso facto, not raping or pillaging. But might you as easily be wasting your time?
When Oprah Winfrey's book club, which did so much for the fortunes of those authors and publishers lucky enough to have had their books selected by the club, went out of business, a long moan was heard over the land. The novelist Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, complained after being selected for the club (and enjoying the attendant boost in sales), and was roundly vilified as a literary snob. But what if the books that Oprah's club endorsed were mostly works of victimology--whinging, hopeless books about dysfunctional families that chiefly reinforced readers in their own self-pity and self-righteous anger?
The answer, I suspect, would probably be, So what? It's still reading, Roscoe. And reading is good, even reading books that aren't themselves all that good. The reading of less than good books, after all, can lead to the reading of superior books, right? The argument that reading even junk is intrinsically a fine thing is a reverse on the old slippery-slope argument. Instead of slipping downward, the reverse-slippery-slope argument here holds that the reading of junky books is likely to lead in time to the reading of good ones. But literary culture has no supply side; it trickles neither down nor up.
Add the general dumbing down in the culture at large, and access to the good or great book becomes rather more improbable. As part of this dumbing down, popular culture cuts a wider and wider swath through higher education. Outside universities, the New York Times Book Review has long run what it calls "chronicles" of mystery and science fiction books, and has now added comics (or visual novels) to its chronicles. If one ever wishes to retain one's fantasies about the good sense of the people in the realm of literary taste, one does best never to consult the bestseller lists.
AS SOMEONE permitted the luxury of reading books during what for other people are working hours, I have long been surprised at the amount of reading that does get done in America, even though I believe, contra "Reading at Risk," that nowhere near 96 million Americans read serious books. So many other things nowadays demand time. The job, including getting to and returning from it; one's family, especially in our day when the rearing of children has become a full-time, full-court-press affair; friendships and community life; the various pleasing distractions that modern life affords the even mildly affluent in the form of sports, travel, entertainment, and much else. To me the shock isn't the discovery that Americans are reading less; it is the knowledge that we read as much as we do, though no one can say, with any precision, how much of this reading is really serious.
One of the statistical reportings of "Reading at Risk" that surprised me is the very low rate of reading which occurs among people over 65. Among the middle-classes, at any rate, adult education, which features much reading, would appear to be a highly attended activity. No doubt many older people attend such classes out of boredom or loneliness, but many more, I suspect, are trying to fill in some of the larger blank spots in their knowledge--to do, as a former student of my own once put it to me, "a second draft" of their own education.
If some people are too secure in their own virtuousness because of their reading, many more feel vastly insecure, sure they haven't read enough books, or the right books. They are even more certain that they will never catch up, and one day arrive at that august condition known as being "well-read." The bad news is that, while some people are better read than others, nobody is well-read enough, ever. Well-read is a condition that, like perpetual happiness, cannot be achieved in this life. Anyone who has been bedeviled by feeling inadequate about his reading will take comfort, I hope, in Gertrude Stein's remark that the happiest day of her life was the day on which she realized she could not read even all the world's good books.
More and more books are published every year, which further complicates things, with bad books Greshamly helping to drive out good. According to R.R. Bowker, the firm that compiles the database for Books in Print, the number of books published last year was a shelf-groaning 175,000, an increase of 19 percent over the previous year, despite the decline in reading generally and the reported flatness of book sales.
"Reading at Risk" breaks down its readers into Light (reading 1-5 books a year), Moderate (6-11 books a year), Frequent (12-49 books a year), and Avid (50 or more books). Alexander Gershenkron, the economic historian, who in his day passed for the most erudite man at Harvard, claimed to have read only two books a week, outside of reading required by his profession. This meant that, over a 50-year career of adult reading, he would have been able to read only 5,000 or so books, a pathetic figure when one considers how many books there are in the world.
Like all surveys, "Reading at Risk" is an example of the style of statistical thinking dominant in our time. It's far from sure that statistics are very helpful in capturing so idiosyncratic an act as reading, except in a bulky and coarse way. That the Swedes read more novels, poems, and plays than Americans and the Portuguese read fewer than we do is a statistical fact, but I'm not sure what you do with it, especially when you don't know the quality of the material being read in the three countries. The statistical style of thinking has currently taken over medicine, where it may have some role to play: I am, for example, taking a pill because a study has shown that 68 percent of the people who take this pill and have a certain condition live 33 percent longer than those who don't. Dopey though this is, I play the odds--the pill costs $1 a day--and go along. But I'm not sure that statistics have much to tell us about a cultural activity so private as reading books.
SERIOUS READING has always been a minority matter. By serious reading I mean the reading of those novels, plays, poems--also philosophies, histories, and other belletristic writing--that make the most exacting efforts to honor their subjects by treating them with the exacting complexity they deserve. Serious readers at some point make a usually accidental connection with literature, sometimes through a teacher but quite as often on their own; when young they come upon a book that blows them away by the aesthetic pleasure they derive from it, the wisdom they find in it, the point of view it provides them.
Nor do the serious often come from places one might think. No one social class has a monopoly of them. Nor were they necessarily good students. When I was editor of the American Scholar, the intellectual quarterly sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa, many people assumed the magazine was read by the 400,000-odd Phi Beta Kappas roaming around the world. Not so. When the magazine attempted an intensive direct-mail campaign to get Phi Beta Kappas to subscribe, the results were dismal. What became plain is that merely being good at school didn't mean that these people had the least interest in things artistic or intellectual. More often than not they did as well as they did at school because they were by nature obedient or because they hoped to get into other (medical, law) schools, thence to earn a good living.
The final question that "Reading at Risk" avoids is the point of reading fiction, poems, and plays. It does send its readers, in its "Summary and Conclusions" section, to a perfectly sound classical statement of the case for reading, "What Use is Literature?" by Myron Magnet, that originally appeared in City Journal and a key paragraph from which reads:
Literature is a conversation across the ages about our experience and our nature, a conversation in which, while there isn't unanimity, there is a surprising breadth of agreement. Literature amounts, in these matters, to the accumulated wisdom of the race, the sum of our reflections on our own existence. It begins with observation, with reporting, rendering the facts of our inner and outer reality with acuity sharpened by imagination. At its greatest, it goes on to show how these facts have coherence and, finally, meaning. As it dramatizes what actually happens to concrete individuals trying to shape their lives at the confluence of so many imperatives, it presents us with concrete and particular manifestations of universal truths. For as the greatest authors know, the universal has to be embodied in the particular--where, as it is enmeshed in the complexity and contradictoriness of real experience, it loses the clarity and lucidity that only abstractions can possess.
That is a grand statement of the case, perhaps a little too thumpingly elevated for the taste and temper of our day, but I was struck in reading it by the penetrating ending of its lengthy final sentence, where the unusual and highly interesting claim is made that reading great imaginative literature helps us to lose "the clarity and lucidity that only abstractions can possess."
Ours is supremely the age of abstractions. "Create a concept," Ortega y Gasset said, "and reality leaves the room." Careful reading of great imaginative writing brings reality back into the room, by reminding us how much more varied, complicated, and rich it is than any social or political concept devised by human beings can hope to capture. Read Balzac and the belief in, say, reining in corporate greed through political reform becomes a joke; read Dickens and you'll know that no social class has any monopoly on noble behavior; read Henry James and you'll find the midlife crisis and other pop psychological constructs don't even qualify as stupid; read Dreiser and you'll be aware that the pleasures of power are rarely trumped by the advertised desire to do good.
Read any amount of serious imaginative literature with care and you will be highly skeptical of the statistical style of thinking. You will quickly grasp that, in a standard statistical report such as "Reading at Risk," serious reading, always a minority interest, isn't at stake here. Nothing more is going on, really, than the crise du jour, soon to be replaced by the report on eating disorders, the harmfulness of aspirin, or the drop in high-school math scores.
Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the author most recently of Fabulous Small Jews and Envy.
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