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Opinion

The NEA’s take on reading

Is reading making a comeback in the United States? That’s the finding of “Reading on the Rise,” a study released Monday by the National Endowment for the Arts, which concludes that literary reading among adult Americans has gone up 3.5% over the last six years.

The endowment considers this significant because its last reading survey, in 2002, reported such a precipitous drop in literary reading that it was titled “Reading at Risk.” The 2002 study showed that in the 10-year period beginning in 1992, adult readers fell from 54% of the population to 46.7%. So does the new report mean we’ve turned a cultural corner?

The answer depends on where you stand in the cultural landscape; how you think about reading itself. I’m not so sure reading really was in crisis -- any more than it ever has been.

Laments over the death of reading are as old as mass literacy; ever since we began to consider culture as a social value, we’ve fixated on the way it falls apart. But what is it exactly we’re lamenting? The NEA’s terms are not particularly useful. The key phrase in “Reading on the Rise” is “literary reading,” which the endowment defines as “novels and short stories, plays or poems.” In 2008, for the first time, the NEA included online reading habits in its survey; as in previous years, nonfiction was left out of the loop.

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That puts the works of David McCullough, Joseph Mitchell, Patricia Hampl and a lot of other authors into the “not literature” category and out of the picture. More to the point, such a definition is unconscious of its own elitism, the idea that literary reading is different from (read: betterthan) any other kind.

In a recent essay in the Nation, William Deresiewicz argued that the NEA has played into the tendency of so-called literary mandarins -- the critics and scholars -- to see themselves as “the Last of the Readers,” an embattled cultural elite. His response to the 2002 survey’s finding that “only” 96 million American adults engaged in literary reading? “Ninety-six million American adults engage in literary reading!”

In other words, there’s a whole lotta reading going on. I agree with Deresiewicz; 96 million is a lot of readers, a veritable army of the written word. And yet I’m glad that reading also seems to be on the upswing -- if indeed it is.

“Reading on the Rise” makes a big deal of the fact that when you consider all age groups, “the absolute number of literary readers is now the highest in the survey’s history”: 112.8 million, up 16.6 million from 2002.

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The percentages, though, tell a different story. In 2008, 50.2% of American adults read literature, but in 1982, the figure was 56.9%. Even the most impressive readership gains in the study, among 18- to 24-year-olds, are open to interpretation. Yes, the 51.7% of young adults represents a 8.9% increase from 2002, but it’s still significantly lower than the 1982 survey’s 59.8%.

Then there are the demographics, which may say less about literary habits than about American life.

Not surprisingly, reading rates go up according to level of education; 68.1% of college graduates identify as readers, compared with 39.1% of high school graduates and 18.5% of those who never went to high school. Consider ethnicity -- 55.7% of whites, 42.6% of African Americans and 31.9% of Latinos meet the NEA’s “literary reader” criteria -- and you get a fuller picture, suggesting that, in the U.S., reading is a talisman of class.

This is important because “Reading on the Rise” correlates its findings to a broader context, framing reading in terms of moral value. “Reading is an important indicator of various positive individual and social behavior patterns,” the report informs us, adding that “previous NEA research has shown that literary readers attend arts and sports events, play sports, do outdoor activities, exercise and volunteer at higher rates than nonreaders.”

Setting aside the question of whether reading is, or even should be, good for you (check out Alan Bennett’s short novel, “The Uncommon Reader,” for a deft take on the other side of that debate: books as socially disruptive), these sorts of comparisons suggest a disturbing subtext, in which a certain kind of reader makes a better grade of citizen -- literary eugenics, in other words.

But don’t expect “Reading on the Rise” to address that; it’s too interested in celebrating itself. “I can think of no happier way to end my tenure at the National Endowment for the Arts,” writes NEA Chairman Dana Gioia in his introduction to the study, “than by sharing such felicitous data” -- data, he suggests, that have more than a little to do with such NEA programs as the Big Read, which cheerleads for the reading of a particular book each year through city schools, libraries and book groups.

That may or may not be true -- the study didn’t measure it -- but either way, it seems more self-congratulatory than persuasive, not unlike “Reading on the Rise” itself.

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times. david.ulin@latimes.com

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