Thoughts on the NEA reading report

A touch of illness over the turkey day break delayed this post and reduced my reading time. Still, now that I’ve had a chance to more closely read the latest NEA report on reading trends in the US, here’s some thoughts and observations on some of its findings:

“Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.” I don’t find this too troublesome given the “for pleasure” qualifier. Most Americans in this age group are attending college and/or embarking on full time jobs and careers (or having children) for the first time. It is sad, but not surprising, that they may feel “too busy” to take time to read a book just for the fun of it. The survey raises questions about where homework is taking away time for leisure reading but I think the reality is that other things simply take priority when you’re in this age group.

“The percentage of 18- to 44-year-olds who read a book fell 7 points from 1992 to 2002.” This, too, is not too surprising given the exponential increase in digital and electronic diversions in that decade. In fact, the study itself found that home internet usage increased 53 percent during roughly that same time among 18- to 24-year-olds.

One of the findings that disconcerted me is that 15- to 24-year-olds spend 2-2½ hours per day watching TV and “[t]his activity consumes the most leisure time for men and women of all ages.” I find this disturbing because, at least from my standpoint, quality seems far too lacking in modern television and requires less imagination. (Thus sayeth a man who spends 10 or so hours a week watching hockey on television — although I tend to read during commercial breaks and intermissions.)

“[F]rom 1985 to 2005, average annual household spending on books dropped 14% when adjusted for inflation.” Again, not overly surprising considering the increased competition for consumer dollars presented by other forms of entertainment, be it internet access, DVDs or even video games. The fact is the number of competitive players in the market have increased.

The most frightening statistic: “Little more than one-third of high school seniors now read proficiently.” In fact, “[e]ven among college graduates, reading proficiency has declined at a 20%–23% rate.” To me, the ramifications of this are frightening. I am a reader because my parents were readers. My children are readers because my wife and I are readers. If our future adult population does not read proficiently, this certainly has long-term consequences that are more significant than simply whether people read for pleasure. The survey plainly indicates there is a correlation between an individual’s reading ability and their employability and future earning capacity.

As an incurable reader, it is perhaps natural for me to be dismayed by the survey findings. The fact is, though, it raises issues all of us need be concerned about.

Whatever the benefits of newer electronicmedia, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.

Preface, To Read or Not To Read

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