You don't usually go to government reports for arresting prose. But consider this sentence: "Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century." Yikes. And that's not the half of it. According to a report on the reading habits of Americans issued last week by the National Endowment for the Arts, less than half of the adult American population now reads for pleasure. Using Census Bureau data, the NEA found that the number of Americans who say they've even opened a single book of fiction, let alone a poem or a play, over the course of a year has declined by 10 percent, from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 46.7 percent today. It gets worse. Young adults between 18 and 34, a category that once claimed the status of most-active readers, is now the lowest, dropping 28 percent since 1982. And by literature, "we're not talking about the number of people who reread Proust," says Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA. "Literature" means simply any books that people read without guns pointed to their heads. "If people read even three pages of a Harlequin romance, it got counted."
One of the most troubling things uncovered by the NEA poll is that people who read are also more likely to do volunteer work or attend plays or ball games. "This study suggests that there are two groups of Americans emerging in this electronic age," says Gioia. "The first group takes a very active and engaged attitude toward information and society. The other group are increasingly passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Unfortunately, one group is growing--and it's not the readers."
Oddly, publishers have responded to the decline in readers by publishing far more titles for people not to read. Two decades ago the number of new books published annually hovered around 60,000, then climbed more than 100,000 in the early '90s. Last year saw a record 164,609 new titles. "Forty years ago you used to worry that a good book would not be published," says Dan Frank, editor in chief of Pantheon Books. "Now everything is being published, and a lot of good books are being overlooked."
Frank agrees with Gioia that publishers need to be more discriminating about what they print, and that the media and educators need to be more aggressive. "The great success that Oprah enjoyed with her book club was because she was performing a process of selection for her audience," he says. In the meantime the NEA report is enough to make you wonder not just if Americans will ever be on the same page, but if they'll be on any page at all.