Politics & Policy

Literature At Risk

The state of our reading habits.

In April 1983, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Commission on Excellence in Education issued “A Nation at Risk,” which memorably declared: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Most official government reports are little noted, and not long remembered, but ANAR hit its mark. Issued just four years after Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education, the report gave a thump of national recognition to what a lot of people already knew: namely, that American schools were, by and large, doing a poor job of educating students.

ANAR launched two decades of sometimes frantic and often desultory school reform–and two decades of opposition from the teachers’ unions. ANAR’s greatest success was in changing the terms of debate, for even those most invested in maintaining the system as it was in 1983 soon adopted the rhetoric of “reform.” We entered the era of the Ukrainian Easter-Egg Curriculum: elaborately decorated on the surface, hollow within. These eggshell reforms are to be found in every other decrepit part of the educational enterprise too, from teaching technique to teacher training, and from school funding to public oversight.

The fruits of these decades of reform are visible in the brand-new official government report issued under a partly familiar title: “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” Released earlier this month, this report comes from the National Endowment for the Arts’s Office of Research and Analysis, under the direction of Mark Bauerlein. RAR reflects the intellectual seriousness of Bauerlein and his boss, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. Gioia is not, by temperament, an optimist, at least in his poetry. Here he is in “Instructions for the Afternoon”:

Leave the museums. Find the dark churches

in back towns that history has forgotten,

the unimportant places the powerful ignore

where commerce knows no profit will be made.

–a poem that ends with the “failing vision” turning into a revelation of:

The grim and superannuated gods

who rule this shadow-land of marble tombs,

bathed in its green suboceanic light.

Not a vision to pursue, and yet

these insufficiencies make up the world.

Strange how all journeys come to this: the sun

bright on the unfamiliar hills, new vistas

dazzling the eye, the stubborn heart unchanged.

It is a wonder that we have an NEA chairman who is a writer of poems that bear quotation. We have, if we care to look, more of this man’s soul than we are likely to glimpse of any other figure in corridors of government. On the testimony of his poems, Gioia is alive to the beauty of this world, gently humorous, but touched almost everywhere by the impending shadows. He describes “Men After Work” drinking coffee, “holding each sip/lukewarm in their mouths, this last taste of evening.” In “Insomnia” he invokes, “The terrible clarity this moment brings,/the useless insight, the unbroken dark.” And his vision might be summarized by the line in “Daily Horoscope,” when, after warning against false auguries, he writes, “you touch, you see, you press against/the surface of impenetrable things.”

The NRO reader who has made it this far is surely eligible to be a sympathetic reader of “Reading at Risk.” The NEA report is not about how many or how few Americans are literate in the sense of deciphering labels on soup cans or Paul Krugman columns. Rather, RAR gives us a detailed analysis of the “literary reading” habits of 17,000 adults. As Gioia says in his preface, the report is a “descriptive survey” and “not a collection of anecdotes, theories, or opinions.” Yet an opinion certainly hangs over these numbers. Gioia’s: that we have experienced a “huge cultural transformation” away from literature and toward “electronic media for entertainment and information.” This shift impoverishes us by diminishing “irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible.”

RAR is rich with carefully analyzed data, but the essential picture is that only 56.6 percent of Americans read a book in 2002, down from 60.9 percent in 1992. That’s a 7-percent rate of decline. The relative decline in those who read a work of literature is even larger. In 2002, 46.7 percent of Americans read a literary book; in 1992, 54 percent had. The declines register in almost every demographic cross section: men, women, whites, African Americans, and Hispanics. (The enterprising “other” category, however, achieved a slight increase in literary reading in the last decade: up from 42.7 percent to 43.7 percent.) The decline shows up at every educational level, including college graduates: from 82.1 percent having read at least one literary work in the preceding year in 1982, down to 74.6 percent in 1992, and down again to 66.7 percent in 2002.

The drop in literary reading, however, is most pronounced when the data are analyzed by age. The overall rate of decline in reading literature between 1982 and 2002 was 18 percent; but comparing 18-24 year olds in 1982 to their counterparts in 2002, the decline is 28 percent.

Regionally, the mountain states (Arizona to Montana) are the place to find the highest concentration of readers of literature (53.4 percent). The lowest: Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee (40.9 percent).

Some results are a bit puzzling. Folks who do read literature average 2.7 hours of television watching each day. Folks who don’t read literature watch an average of 3.1 hours.

In families that earn less than $10,000 per year, 29.6 percent of the individuals in the survey read literature. The percent of readers steps up in correlation to income until it reaches 59.4 percent among families earning $75,000 or more. That is to say, among the poor, almost a third do read literature; and among the affluent, over a third don’t.

Together with all its technical appendices, RAR is under 40 pages and well worth the close reading that 56.6 percent of us are potentially capable of giving.

But what does it mean?

When I was in graduate school, I was friends with an Icelandic couple who were, as many Icelanders are, very proud of their heritage. They never tired of retelling a particular statistic: that Icelanders read more books per capita than anyone else in the world. To this day, I am glad for the Icelanders, and I hope that the land of geysers and puffins does not succumb to the temptations of some saga-less Snorri Instapunditsdottir.

But I never could really work up much envy of Icelandic bookishness. Maybe it is because I have always had friends who are not readers of literary works, but who are nonetheless interesting people with lively minds. I just don’t feel a deep need for an America where everybody reads short stories, novels, plays, poetry, and reflective essays.

But, of course, that isn’t really what’s at stake. Gioia, Bauerlein & Co. at the National Endowment for the Arts are really pointing to the thinning out of a certain kind of cultural sensibility in the United States. Their statistics can only “press against/the surface of impenetrable things.” Their report would, no doubt, have met with derision had they attempted to distinguish between reading supermarket novels and serious literature. They veer instead to the opposite extreme by including “popular genres” in the definition of “literary works,” and declaring, “No distinctions were drawn on the quality of literary works.” The numbers of readers reported in “Reading at Risk” therefore represent an inflated estimate.

Judith Krantz, Robin Cook, and Danielle Steel count as much as Jane Austen, Herman Melville, and Theodore Dreiser. A Harlequin Romance, a Star Trek novel, or even murkier “fiction” passes the NEA’s lenient test of what counts as a “literary book.” Reading is reading; a novel is a novel; and that’s that.

I give due allowance to this view. It may be possible (though hardly likely) to read a book by Jane Austen almost as superficially as a book by Danielle Steel. But Austen resists that kind of reading. She asks better of her readers and gives us reasons to want to meet her at that better level, while a writer like Steel offers only what amounts to a slovenly solicitation. Melville’s first novel, Typee, offers as wild a ride as anything by Robin Cook. The difference is that Melville is also coming to grips with a profound discovery of the fragile boundary between his civilization and a world that lies beyond it. Because literature isn’t always easily recognized, we ought to be generous in allowing auditions. But that doesn’t mean we have to allow all comers. I have to wonder what the NEA’s calculation of 56.6 percent of Americans having read a book in 2002 would look like if we could somehow factor out the Harlequin Romances and other bits of obvious dreck.

Real literature pushes us into a place where we have to make judgments and rely on discernment. And those are matters of deep concern to conservatives–at least those conservatives who believe that real human communities are built on traditions of moral striving in a world of imperfect individuals. Literature may not mean much to the Gradgrinds who think society can be reduced to a good set of rules coupled with proper incentives. Nor is literature likely to rank high in the estimation of people infatuated with newness. They need a bulletin board more than a Mark Twain or a George Eliot. And literature, of course, lives a thin life in the world of ideologues, who can accommodate it as long as it stays on message. But real literature seldom does.

Since this is NRO and “The Corner” is lurking nearby, let me pick up just one of those threads. Clearly one of the lures drawing intelligent people away from literature is the blogosphere. It is a place of quicker satisfactions than the novel: the reader’s and the writer’s equivalent of speed dating, as opposed to the old rituals of courtship. The self-generation of this new form of communication is, in many respects, a marvel. Certain kinds of news get heard and vetted far better than in older channels of communication. But just as clearly, blogging helps to dilute that relatively slow, resistant kind of reading that good literature cultivates. “Fisking” a poorly thought-out New York Times article is an intense and engaged way of reading, but it is in the end just a fiercer approach to ephemera. Bloggers, blog on, but keep reading good books too.

“Reading at Risk” is, I suppose, unlikely to ignite the sort of fires that “A Nation at Risk” started in 1983. The prices we may pay as a nation and as a culture for failing to read good literature are inevitably more obscure than those that come from simple illiteracy, innumeracy, and ignorance. The main prices of being ill-read are cultural superficiality, loss of historical context, susceptibility to ideological provocations, and a certain kind of spiritual aimlessness. Granted, these tax some people more than others. We do not need to be an Iceland, where everybody has read Njal’s Saga–or, in our case, The Last of the Mohicans. But if we are to sustain ourselves as a civilization, we need men and women self-sufficient enough to read and to love books.

Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.


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