NEW YORK (AP) — The reading of books is on the decline in America, despite Harry Potter and the best efforts of Oprah Winfrey.
A report released Thursday by the National Endowment for the Arts says the number of non-reading adults increased by more than 17 million between 1992 and 2002.
Only 47% of American adults read "literature" (poems, plays, narrative fiction) in 2002, a drop of 7 points from a decade earlier. Those reading any book at all in 2002 fell to 57%, down from 61%.
NEA chairman Dana Gioia, himself a poet, called the findings shocking and a reason for grave concern. "We have a lot of functionally literate people who are no longer engaged readers," Gioia said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This isn't a case of 'Johnny Can't Read,' but 'Johnny Won't Read.'"
Well, and why should they? Who has ever made the case to them, past the age of 10, that reading literature is important? Reading email, sure. Reading USA Today, maybe. Reading US Weekly, absolutely. But literature?
As long as language arts teachers are teaching books instead of concepts, teaching literature qua literature ("I teach this book because I love it, and therefore you will love it too") instead of literature as a lens through which to see the world, grapple with its Big Questions, and figure out who you are and what you believe, then students will continue to drop literature as soon as they're done with school, picking up a novel as adults only if it's in paperback, only if it's drenched in sex and violence, and only if they need something to occupy themselves on an airplane or at the beach (once they're done with US Weekly, of course).
Instead of blaming our citizenry for not valuing the Right Things, as we are wont to do, perhaps we should be blaming ourselves, as educators and parents--and consumers of popular culture--for not caring enough about those supposedly Right Things to teach them to our children and value them ourselves.