Reading in America

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Gwen Outen. This week our program examines reading in the United States.

Americans have read a lot in recent weeks about a study. It shows that for the first time in modern history, fewer than half the adults in the country read literature.

A federal agency that gives money to the arts announced the findings. The National Endowment for the Arts is the official arts organization of the United States government.

The report says forty-seven percent of American adults read novels, short stories, plays or poetry in two-thousand-two. That was down ten percentage points from twenty years earlier.

The study is called “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” The Census Bureau, the agency that collects facts about the population, did the study.

Researchers asked seventeen-thousand people about their reading. The people could define literature however they wanted. It could be any kind of fiction, poetry or play. It could include works like love stories, mysteries or science fiction. The researchers compared the results with findings from nineteen-eighty-two and nineteen-ninety-two.

Women read more literature than men. But the research shows that men and women are both reading less and less.

Twenty years ago, people between the ages of eighteen and forty-four read more literature than any other age groups. But the new study shows an increasingly sharp loss of interest in reading among young adults. Researchers say the only people who read less literature in two-thousand-two were those age sixty-five and older.

The poet Dana Gioia is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Gioia says all groups in America are reading less, and not just less literature. In nineteen-ninety-two, sixty-one percent of adults read a book. In two-thousand-two, it was fifty-seven percent. The average number of books read was eighteen. But some people read a lot more than others.

Among readers of literature, almost half read novels or short stories in two-thousand-two. Twelve percent read poetry. Four percent read a play.

“Reading at Risk” notes that the book industry in the United States now sells three times as many books as it did twenty-five years ago. In two-thousand the industry sold more than two thousand million books. Book sales are up. But the report shows that people are reading less for pleasure. And it says one reason is competition from technology.

The report lists how Americans divide their spending on things like entertainment. In nineteen-ninety, they spent six percent on audio and video recordings and on computers and software. They spent almost as much, five-point-seven percent, on books.

By two-thousand-two, five-point-six percent went to book buying. Twenty-four percent went to electronics.

But some people do use technology to listen to recordings of books or read electronic versions.

In the words of Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts: "This report documents a national crisis."

Yet there are some who say Americans should not read too much into the importance of the warnings. Charles McGrath is former editor of the Book Review at The New York Times. The newspaper published a commentary in which Mr. McGrath noted that the study dealt only with literature.

He said he regrets that the research did not include works of non-fiction. After all, he says, some books about facts and events are very important for the information they provide. For example, he says recent books about the war in Iraq are shaping national debate.

Also, Mr. McGrath noted that the report did not consider magazines, newspapers or the Internet. And this literary critic criticized the fact that the people in the study could define literature any way they wished. They were told they did not have to include “just what literary critics might consider literature.”

While Americans are reading less literature, more are trying to write it. “Reading at Risk” says creative writing is one of the few literary activities that have increased.

And editors like David Green are trying to help people get their work printed. For many years, he has published a small magazine of short stories called Green's Magazine. Mr. Green says it is costly to produce and mail four times a year. A few thousand Americans and Canadians buy it. But he says one reason he started the publication was to help beginning writers. He says it has always been difficult for new writers to find a publisher.

Today, though, writers who cannot get their work published by a traditional publishing company can place their work on the Internet. That way, people can read it online or print out a copy.

Some people who publish on the Internet are far from unknown. The writer Stephen King published “Riding the Bullet” online. It cost only a little money to read. But he suspended publication of his next online book, “The Plant.” He did that because people were printing the book without paying.

"Reading at Risk" says more than ninety percent of people said they like television better than reading. The average American family watches television more than three hours a day. The report says television has reduced interest in books.

We talked to a professor who teaches literature in Maryland. She says many of her students do not want to read the books required in her classes. They try to read only notes and commentaries about the books instead. She says the problem is that college students these days grew up on television.

Yet some television programs have influenced people to read. For example, Oprah Winfrey started a book club on her popular talk show. During the first Oprah’s Book Club, she chose a current book that she liked. She asked people to read the book and then write to her show with their thoughts and opinions.

Oprah’s Book Club had a big effect on the publishing industry. Publishers had to print more copies of books to satisfy demand. People who wanted to borrow copies from a library sometimes found several hundred others before them on the waiting list.

In two-thousand-two, Oprah Winfrey decided to drop the book club from her television show. Now, however, she is again suggesting books. This time, she chooses classics. Her choice of “Anna Karenina” made this Russian classic an American best seller. Leo Tolstoy wrote it in the eighteen-seventies.

Many Americans form their own book clubs. Members might be friends from work. Or they might live near each other. Most groups read the same book at the same time. Then they meet to discuss it. Some people discuss books over the Internet.

Some book groups read only literary novels by great writers. Or they might read the works of only one writer. Members of a book club in the state of Georgia choose books of special interest to African Americans. Members of another Georgia book club each read different books. Then they give a report to the others.

Children belong to reading clubs, too. In Illinois, for example, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago has organized book clubs in schools.

Children’s book clubs can get help from the Great Books Foundation. This organization provides lists of books to read and also sells collected stories. It also trains people to lead discussions about the books.

The National Endowment for the Arts says the move toward electronic media for entertainment and information is not good news for society. Its report, “Reading at Risk,” says readers are more active in their communities.

The research shows that people who read literature are far more likely than non-readers to give their time to help others. They are more likely to support the arts. They are also more likely to attend sporting events. In other words, reading influences people’s lives beyond just the pleasure that books provide.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Gwen Outen. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.