Just before Christmas friends and colleagues phoned and emailed to ask if we’d seen the latest NEA report on the decline of reading. The report could be interpreted as alarming, but it is in the optimistic nature of Narrative’s enterprise that the news was relayed to us as an affirmation of what we’re doing. Here’s the essence of the report, in case you haven’t seen it.
Annual book sales per person are steadily trending downward. Average household spending on books, adjusted for inflation, fell to a twenty-year low in 2005, though book prices were rising. The number of adult readers capable of making a meaningful comparison of viewpoints in two editorials has declined in the past decade to 13 percent of the population, and among high school seniors, only 35 percent are proficient readers. Overall the steepest declines in reading have been in the category of literary reading, and the full spectrum of losses in reading are taking place not only in the United States but also worldwide.
These trends are troubling, given that good readers are more likely than others to participate in all areas of culture, but the decline of reading may be viewed as less than terminal when viewed in historical perspective. Mass literacy, or general reading as we think of it today, dates from the mid-nineteenth century, a short hundred and fifty years ago. The changes occurring now may simply be an evolutionary aspect of media inevitably moving us toward more pictorial and auditory forms.