Fiction reading increases but we’re still a nation divided

There’s some great news in the latest reading study by the National Endowment for the Arts. “For the first time in the history of the survey — conducted five times since 1982 — the overall adult literary reading rate has risen (from 46.7 percent in 2002 to 50.2 percent in 2008).” It isn’t all necessarily good news, though. Among other things, the U.S. adult population now breaks into two almost equally sized groups — readers and non-readers — and while those adults who read a book not required for work or school have grown in absolute numbers, they have declined slightly as a percentage of the population.

Rather than looking at the divisions, though, it’s probably best to celebrate the goods news. What’s especially exciting is that literary reading (defined as any novels, short stories, poems, or plays) increased most rapidly among the youngest adults. The percentage of adults age 18-24 who read literature grew nearly nine points whereas from 1982 to 2002 their literary reading rate fell by 24.2 percent, the steepest rate of decline among all adult age groups. The only age group that showed a small decline in its reading rate is my own, ages 45-54. Their rate dropped 1.3 percent but the survey says that is not “statistically significant.”

Other items of interest:

  • Nearly half (47 percent) of all adults read a novel or short story in 2008.
  • The absolute number of literary readers is now the highest in the history of the NEA survey whereas in 2002 the number of adult literary readers fell by more than four million.
  • After declining between 1982 and 2002, men increased their reading of literature at an 11 percent rate between 2002 and 2008. While the rate for women reading literature only grew at a five percent rate from 2002 to 2008, they still read more literature than men.
  • For adults who read online articles, essays, or blogs, the book-reading rate is 77 percent and nearly 15 percent of all U.S. adults read literature online in 2008.
  • Of those who read literature online, 46.3 percent said they enjoy reading mysteries compared to 32.2 percent for thrillers, 29.4 percent for science fiction, 23.3 percent for romance and 40.1 percent for “other fiction.” That’s not much different from those who read a novel or short story, where 53 percent said they enjoy reading mysteries, 40.8 percent “other fiction,” 32.6 percent thrillers, 28.5 percent romance and 25.4 percent science fiction.

The NEA says it has no statistical answer to why literary reading rates increased but believes it “is not a school-based trend but a broader, community-wide phenomenon” spurred on by families, schools, and communities making reading a higher priority.

Cultural decline is not inevitable.

Preface, Reading on the Rise

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