January 06, 2005

BOOKS: "Reading at Risk" Symposium

This will be a long post, but I think book readers will find it interesting. A few months back, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report called "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America." It was not an optimistic report, and today, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia led a symposium on the report at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Gioia began by presenting a summary of the findings. You've probably heard them, but in brief: Less than half of American adults (46.7%) had read any literature -- defined as novels, short stories, poetry, or drama in any format, including online -- in the previous 12 months, down from 54% ten years ago, and 57% twenty years ago.

The decline is accelerating, especially among the youngest adults (18-34), and crosses all demographics -- age, gender, race, geographic location. (One minor exception: Reading among the ethnic group classed as "Other" by the Bureau of the Census, which conducted the survey, rose by one percentage point from ten years ago; this group is made up primarily of Asian-Americans.)

In response to one common objection that's been raised to the study, Gioia noted that publishing industry statistics suggest that had non-fiction reading been included, the drop would have been smaller, especially among men, but would still be alarming.

Though no single factor can fully explain the drop in reading, the report notes the increasing prevalence of electronic media -- DVD, computers, video games -- as one factor. As a percentage of total entertainment spending, spending on electronic media has quadrupled in the last decade, while spending on books has decreased slightly. Gioia believes that society is increasingly "bifurcating" between people who spend their leisure time watching TV and DVDs and browsing the web, and "people who leave their houses."

"Culture is a conversation," said Gioia as he introduced the three panelists who would take part in today's conversation: California State Librarian Susan Hildreth; book critic and San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Kipen; and Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

In her remarks, Hildreth struck the most optimistic tone of the afternoon, noting that public library circulation has steadily increased since the mid-90s, and rose 6% between 2000 and 2003. (She did not, however, comment on how much of that circulation is made up of books.) She noted that only four activities -- watching TV, going to the movies, exercise, and gardening -- were participated in by more people than reading, and wondering if the increase in online reading might have led to under-reporting by readers who don't think of their web browsing as reading. She also noted the growing popularity of "One Book, One City/State" programs in the last few years.

Book groups in general have been growing in popularity of late, Hildreth noted, and suggested that for many readers, book groups may be a way to develop the sort of critical reading skills that they didn't get in college, as the traditional liberal arts education has given way to more career-oriented degrees. She also suggested that one tool librarians have to help fight the decline in reading is readers' advisory, which has been somewhat in decline as libraries have focused on technology and web presence.

Kipen spoke next, and responded to Gioia's call for "stupid ideas" by noting that San Francisco was currently embarking on an ambitious library renovation program, even as Salinas, not too far away, was planning to close its libraries for lack of funding. While it is good that San Francisco has funding for such a program, Kipen argued, it is "absurd" that such inequalities in funding exist, and some mechanism needs to be developed to more equitably fund all of our public libraries.

Next, Kipen noted that the increasing conglomerization of publishing has led to demands for higher profits; publishers who were once happy with 5% profits are now pressured for 15% by their corporate owners. Publishers "need to be shaken down" and accept lower profits if they hope to continue to have any profits.

Finally, Kipen wondered if satellite radio companies XM and Sirius could be persuaded to devote one of their 100-plus channels to books -- author interviews, on-air book group discussions, books-on-tape broadcasts -- as a radio equivalent to C-SPAN's Book TV.

Last up was Wasserman, who is a remarkably good extemporaneous speaker. He began by noting that the American "experiment in mass literacy is historically unprecedented," and that the collapse of American public education over the last twenty years is surely a factor in the decline of reading. Our "McLuhanite distress at the advancement of technological distraction" is not enough to solve the problem; we must deal with the political dimension as well.

Part of the problem, Wasserman suggested, is that people are simply overwhelmed with choices; the number of titles published each year has more than doubled in the last decade, and it appears that "no book, however mediocre, goes unpublished in America today." With so many choices, and no good way to separate the wheat from the chaff, many potential readers may have simply given up.

In closing remarks, Gioia agreed with Wasserman that part of the problem lies with the American educational system, which he described as "broken at so many levels" that money alone cannot fix it; it is a problem of vision. In response to an audience question, Gioia said that the decline in reading is similar, though far less dramatic, in western Europe, and worried about the long-range implications; these trends, he claims, are "incompatible with democracy."

It was an interesting discussion. I do think that the trend is real, though I am less worried by it than the panelists were; I think Hildreth is probably correct to suggest that online reading is under-reported, and I do not worry that we are heading, as Gioia, suggests, for a second Middle Ages, when a small literate class serves as interpreters and disseminators of information to the predominantly oral culture of the masses. There was something of a Chicken Little quality to the proceedings, a "wallowing in voluptuous despair," as Wasserman put it.

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