In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a report that it said represented “a national crisis.” What was under such dire peril that it threatened to “impoverish both cultural and civic life,” as NEA Chairman Dana Gioia put it? Reading—or, more aptly put, not reading. According to the report, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, less than half the population engaged in any literary reading in 2002, a record low since the survey’s beginnings in 1982.National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (New York: Author, 2004).
The report, which asked respondents whether they had read any literary fiction (novels, short stories, plays, or poetry) over the past year showed especially stark numbers among the youngest adults. Those aged 18–24 saw a rate of decline 55 percent greater than the total adult population. (Books read for school or work weren’t counted in the survey, which was examining Americans’ leisure reading habits.) According to the NEA, the overall 10 percent drop in literary readers represented a loss of 20 million potential readers, most of them young. In 1982, young adults (people aged 18–34) were most likely to engage in literary reading; by 2002, they were the least likely group. Based on this, the report asks, “Are we losing a generation of readers?”National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (New York: Author, 2004).
Despite these facts, the publishing industry’s releasing more books than ever before. In 2003, just 1 year after the NEA issued its gloomy warning about the state of reading, 175,000 new titles were published in the United States—a 19 percent jump from the year before.Bowker, “U.S. Book Production Soars to 175,000 New Titles in 2003; Trade Up, University Presses Down,” news release, May 27, 2004, http://www.bowker.com/press/bowker/2004_0527_bowker.htm. Since the early part of the 21st century, the United States publishing industry has had an average annual monetary growth rate of 1.1 percent; however, net sales have dropped from $26 billion to $23 billion in the past year.Association of American Publishers, “Industry Statistics 2009: AAP Reports Book Sales Estimated at $23.9 Billion in 2009,” http://www.publishers.org/main/IndustryStats/indStats_02.htm. Meanwhile, as the NEA report notes, 24 percent of Americans’ recreational spending went to electronics, while books accounted for only 5.6 percent in 2002. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the households that watched television more read less. The report warned that “at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.”National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (New York: Author, 2004).
As a response to the alarming statistics, in 2006 the NEA launched its Big Read program, essentially a city-wide book club in which community members are encouraged to read the same book at the same time. The NEA provided publicity, funding for kickoff parties, and readers’ guides. The residents of Tampa, Florida, read The Joy Luck Club and were accorded a visit by author Amy Tan, and the residents of Washington, DC, chose Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying with hopes that it would spur conversations about race, justice, and violence. The Big Read’s DC program director said that he hoped the book got young people talking, noting that the book raises all sorts of relevant questions, such as “Do we offer second chances for people after making mistakes, especially youth in DC? What about youth in the justice system? So many people who have been through the juvenile justice system will testify a book set them free,” he claimed.DeNeen Brown, “Ernest J. Gaines’s ‘Lesson’ Prompts Teens to Grapple With Stark Realities,” Washington Post, May 10, 2010, Arts section.
When the NEA’s 2008 numbers were released, many people were again surprised. The statistics showed that the decline in reading had reversed, the first such increase in 26 years. Once again, the change was most significant among young adults, who had a 21 percent increase from 2002.Motoko Rich, “Fiction Reading Increases for Adults,” New York Times, January 11, 2009, Arts section. The NEA credited the “millions of parents, teachers, librarians, and civic leaders [who] took action… [to ensure that] reading became a higher priority in families, schools, and communities.”Motoko Rich, “Fiction Reading Increases for Adults,” New York Times, January 11, 2009, Arts section. Another factor may have been in play, however; the 2008 study was the first to include online reading. To understand what books mean in the present world of e-readers and digital libraries, it helps to examine how they functioned in the past and to consider how they might change in the future.