15 January 09 | Chad W. Post

This past Monday, the National Endowment for the Arts released some promising findings about the reading habits of Americans, showing that for the first time in 25 years, the percentage of adults reading literature increased over the previous study. (Studies have been done five times since 1982, which is why this phrasing is somewhat peculiar.)

Over the past few years, the NEA has released a couple of reports — Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read — showing pretty much the exact opposite.

To be more specific about the increase, in 2002, 46.7% of adult Americans read a novel, play, poem, or short story over the past year. In the most recent study, that percentage has jumped to 50.2%.

As Motoko Rich points out in her NY Times article, a lot of people jumped on the last study for “criticizing the study for too narrowly defining reading by focusing on the literary side, and for not explicitly including reading that occurred online.”

In terms of this study, outgoing chairman Dana Gioia said “that Internet reading was included in the 2008 data, although the phrasing of the central question had not changed since 1982. But he said he did not think that more reading online was the primary reason for the increase in literary reading rates overall.”

Instead, he points to the popularity of Harry Potter, the Twilight series, and the like, along with the NEA’s own Big Read initiative, (headed by the ever-enthusiastic, David Kipen) as causes of this increase. (No mention of the role Open Letter books have played in increasing American readership, but I’m sure that’s just an oversight.)

Here are some specific findings from this new study:

The absolute number of literary readers has grown significantly. There were 16.6 million more adult readers of literature in 2008. The growth in new readers reflects higher adult reading rates combined with overall population growth.

Young adults show the most rapid increases in literary reading. Since 2002, 18-24 year olds have seen the biggest increase (nine percent) in literary reading, and the most rapid rate of increase (21 percent). This jump reversed a 20 percent rate of decline in the 2002 survey, the steepest rate of decline since the NEA survey began.

Since 2002, reading has increased at the sharpest rate (+20 percent) among Hispanic Americans, Reading rates have increased among African Americans by 15 percent, and among Whites at an eight percent rate of increase.

Fiction (novels and short stories) accounts for the new growth in adult literary readers.

Reading poetry and drama continues to decline, especially poetry-reading among women.

Nearly 15 percent of all U.S. adults read literature online in 2008.

In a world of mergers, downsizing, and shitty sales, it’s nice to get some news that’s at least a little encouraging.


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