CHRONICLE -- You don't need a survey to detect the decline of reading, the diminished clout of the book. Vist Easons or Hughes&Hughes at major transit points in Dublin and you'll see evidence for yourself. Carman Roman mulls the anecdotal comparisons. Back in the 14th century, Edward III swapped 80 oxen for one illustrated tome, thinking that he'd pulled off a royal deal. These days President Bush, hardly known for bibliophilia, brags that he doesn't even read newspapers. I don't expect to find any first year multimedia degree student who will admit to "literary reading" as a leisure activity. That part of Irish leisure is well and truly relegated to the pension class.
- In the 16th century, Ulric Fugger, chamberlain to Pope Paul IV, bought so many books that his family had him declared insane. Today you'd have to buy thousands of Lucent shares for your family to even pay attention.
- When Marc Antony sought to impress Cleopatra, he gave her the 200,000-volume library of Pergamum. This year Marc Anthony won Jennifer Lopez just by promising not to be Ben Affleck.
These quasi-scientific statistical studies have their place. One hopes "Reading at Risk," the National Endowment of the Arts report released to prominent notice in The New York Times this month, will spark the debate on American reading it urges.
Key findings, extrapolated from 2002 census data:
- The "percentage of adult Americans reading literature has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years," from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 46.7 percent in 2002.
- The number of American adults who read any book sank from 60.9 percent in 1992 to 56.6 percent in 2002.
- Literary reading -- the reading of fiction, poetry, or plays -- fell off among all specified ethnic groups, at all educational levels, among all age groups, and among both women and men. The "steepest decline in literary reading is in the youngest age groups": for example, from 59.8 percent in 1982's 18-to-24 group to 42.8 percent in 2002.
- The report warns that the decline in literary reading, "which correlates with increased participation in a variety of electronic media," also "foreshadows an erosion in cultural and civic participation" because literary readers participate more actively than nonreaders in volunteer and charity work, and more frequently patronize performing-arts events, sports events, and museums.
Neither Gioia nor the report's authors soften the findings with boosterish optimism. "The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture," laments Gioia, "will study the pages of this report in vain."
Carlin Romano -- "Who killed literary reading?"