Johnny won’t read

Americans are reading less literature, says a report, “Reading at Risk,” by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Only 47% of American adults read “literature” (poems, plays, narrative fiction) in 2002, a drop of 7 points from a decade earlier. Those reading any book at all in 2002 fell to 57%, down from 61%.

NEA chairman Dana Gioia, himself a poet, called the findings shocking and a reason for grave concern.

“We have a lot of functionally literate people who are no longer engaged readers,” Gioia said in an interview with The Associated Press. “This isn’t a case of ‘Johnny Can’t Read,’ but ‘Johnny Won’t Read.'”

The likely culprits, according to the report: television, movies and the internet.

. . . The drop in reading was widespread: among men and women, young and old, black and white, college graduates and high school dropouts. The numbers were especially poor among adult men, of whom only 38% read literature, and Hispanics overall, for whom the percentage was 26.5.

The decline was especially great among the youngest people surveyed, ages 18 to 24. Only 43% had read any literature in 2002, down from 53% in 1992.

What do non-readers do with their leisure time? The Washington Post answers:

Of the adults surveyed, 95.7 percent preferred watching television, 60 percent preferred attending a movie and 55 percent preferred lifting weights or doing other exercise to reading literature. Even 47 percent chose working in the garden.

They prefer lifting weights?

About Joanne


  1. John from OK says:

    I prefer lifting weights. Sometimes I’m the only one in the weight room. We must have a lot of literature readers here.

  2. The term for people who can read but choose not to is aliteracy.

    This is a very interesting report. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole 60-page PDF report, yet, but a few things stand out from the press release:

    Poetry, fiction, and drama are the only materials tracked. Are people reading more memoirs, collections of essays, or history and less poetry, fiction, and drama? If they are, this report would not capture that data.

    NEA chairman Dana Gioia is quoted as saying, “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life.” Will only reading poetry, fiction, and drama do this?

    “People who read more books tend to have the highest level of participation in other activities.”

    This should give bookworms ammunition for responding to those who criticize them for not getting out and being more active.

    “Contrary to the overall decline in literary reading, the number of people doing creative writing increased by 30 percent, from 11 million in 1982 to more than 14 million in 2002.”

    This statistic – a 30% increase – is remarkable.

    From a longer historical perspective, I wonder what the reading rates for the previous 20 years looked like (i.e. 1962-1982), and the twenty years before that, and…

    In other words, is this part of long decline in reading practices or is it a return to long-held levels from an unusual peak in the early ’80s? How much of a crisis is this?

    And while it’s tempting to conclude that correlation equals causation, this is not necessarily the case. For example, the report states that “literature readers watched an average of 2.7 hours of television each day, while people who do not read literary works watched an average of 3.1 hours daily.”

    I can see how the balance between tv watching and reading could be seen as a zero-sum game, but these two figures do not seem that far apart. That’s a difference of, what, 24 minutes? (And 2.7 hours *every day* seems like a lot of tv watching to me.)

    Questions left unasked, as far as I can tell: How has access to reading material changed in the past twenty years? What’s the state of public libraries now compared to then? How have bookstores changed? (It seems like there are more megastores.) How has membership in reading groups changed? How has publishing changed? Have prices gone up, adjusted for inflation? (The report states that those with more money are more likely to be readers.)

    Finally, there’s this:

    “Gioia avoided specific proposals in the NEA report. ‘I don’t believe the NEA should tell the culture what to do,’ he said.”

    Well, goodness knows, whatever you do, don’t do this!

  3. My first sentence above should be “The term for people who can read but choose not to is aliterate.”

    Also, there’s a story in NY Times:

  4. On a lighter note, based on the joke I was just sent, there may be some math issues as well:

    It’s graduation day at the elementary school in Los Angeles, and everybody’s waiting to get their diplomas. Everybody but Johnny, who failed math.

    At the assembly, the entire graduating class stands up and shouts “Let Johnny graduate, let Johnny graduate!”

    The principal agrees to give Johnny one last chance. “If I have five apples in my right hand and five in my left hand, Johnny, how many apples do I have?” he asked.

    Johnny thought long and hard and then said “Ten.”

    Hearing the answer, the entire class stood up and shouted “Give Johnny another chance, give Johnny another chance!”

  5. Steve LaBonne says:

    Perhaps they should have considered the quality of contemporary fiction, poetry and plays when pondering why nobody is reading them? Just a thought.

  6. Does Stephen King count? I don’t read much fiction, but I read non-fiction and biographies by the caseload. If Stephen King and Ann Rice and thier ilk count as “literature”, then I’m aliterate. And who sits around reading plays?

  7. Kudos to Steve LaBonne.

    I have an advanced degree in English lit and I’ve taught it at a university.

    I don’t read novels, short stories, etc. because I am not interested in the content of the authors of the identity causes. I’m not interested in self-pity.

    I do read a lot about motorcycles and sports, and I read technical manuals every day because that’s my job.

    When I do read, I return to the masters.

  8. “Contrary to the overall decline in literary reading, the number of people doing creative writing increased by 30 percent, from 11 million in 1982 to more than 14 million in 2002.

    This statistic – a 30% increase – is remarkable.”

    It’s also very misleading. Accounting for the increase in population ( using estimates for 1980 and 2000) it’s actually an increase in 2.5%. Whoopee.


  9. I don’t think they were counting only contemporary novels and such as literature.

    On the other hand, I wonder how many people, when confronted by the term “literature”, in the back of their minds remember crawling through Silas Marner rather than the latest Amy Tan. (Or maybe Amy Tan doesn’t count? I never know.)

    As to working in the garden, I don’t do that myself, but my parents do whenever they are able. Communing with nature and so forth. They used to tell me it was restful, after sitting behind a desk all day at work. If I had to sit at a desk all day I probably wouldn’t read as much in my leisure time.

  10. Several thoughts:

    Like others, I wonder about the limitation to fiction. I’m an avid reader, and haven’t read a modern novel for 10 years until yesterday–the magnificently entertaining The Jane Austen Book Club. I devour magazines on culture, policy, and esthetics, as well as essays on the Web.

    After an unhappy dweeby 24/7-reading youth, I recognized a sign of greater intellectual and emotional health when I finally engaged more exercise and gardening and social life than addictive reading. People who can’t or don’t read are probably at a disadvantage; but after a certain point more reading is not better. The life of the mind is perhaps better fostered in a selectively reading intellectual community, in the interplay between life and ideas, than buried in ever more books, particularly current fiction.

    Very fuzzy thinking by the designers of this report. What, really was their purpose and point? What has their reading done to foster intelligence and conceptual grasp of an issue?

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Seems like some snobbery involved in the report.
    Through a mix of cunning and apathy, I have managed to almost completely avoid “literature”, yet my home is full of books and the librarians of the county know me like a brother.
    My last trip to the library included a book on the Gulf War’s battle of Khafji, a book on the Marines’ run to Baghdad, and a history of the independent tank battalions in WW II in Europe.
    Then there was the new Hillerman novel and the new Richard Sharpe novel by Cornwell.
    The problem is that when I refer to a dead white European male author I like, it’s Kipling, and none of the literacy-pushers give you any credit for that.
    No pleasing some folks.

  12. Real readers will combine reading with almost any other activity. Many of the people using the stationary bikes at my exercise club read as they ride. (Though fewer since the club brought in wall mounted TVs.) If I could read as I lift weights, I would do so.

    And I have to agree with the commenters who said most modern fiction does not appeal, though I do still look from time to time at classics.

  13. Could it also be related to the way literature is taught? From what I read of academic blogs these days, it seems common to teach literature by running everything through interpretive templates. This can only appeal to a subset of the population with very limited brain power.

  14. I taught English for five years, until I escaped back to my own field of history.

    I once asked the students a simple question — “What books do you like to read?” There was nothing but the silence of the grave. I then followed up. “You do read books, don’t you?” One young boy, taking English II for the second time, responded “Books today are called ‘movies.'”

    In this day of video-based curriculum and instruction (to say nothing of our video based culture of film-clips and sound-bites) he may have been absolutely correct.

    And that frightens me.

  15. Bob Diethrich says:

    A few thoughts:

    1) I have always felt that with a greater proportion of the populace going to “college” or other forms of higher education in the last forty years, more people have been confronted with more stuff that they HAD TO READ, and so may be turned off to life long reading.

    2) I was a book worm growing up, mostly good contemperary fiction, but a good deal of classics as well. I was always a die hard reader of history and so I became a history teacher. After college and all the stuff I had to read, I rarely read fiction anymore, but still devour books on history and politics, both for my class and for pleasure.

    3) I wonder if reading excellent blogs (like this one JJ) counts as reading according to this study?

  16. Hm. As if the Internet were not composed largely of words in a row. But then, as the purpose of the Internet and it’s overriding philosophy is the communication of useful ideas and entertainment in the most efficient manner possible, it cannot possibly be literature.

    It’s not that I don’t read. But I make a great point in not reading what academics refer to as “literature.”

    By way of example, I still recall the top three titles on the required reading list for my 1 credit HS “Science Fiction as Literature” course.

    I was and am an avid SF/Fantasy reader. At the time I could have compiled a killer list myself.

    And three of the books I’d never have included would have been

    Childhood’s End
    On the Beach
    The Lord of the Flies

    Now, I’d READ all three of them. But the message of them all is, essentially, “Life sucks, then you die. Miserably and alone, unless saved by a thumping great impersonal Deus Ex Machine.”

    Fahrenheit 451
    The Illustrated Man
    The Martian Chronicles.

    Oh, and one I approved of, sort of; “Frankenstein.”

    Nothing I’d refer to as an entertaining read, though.

    Where was “Stranger in a Strange Land?”
    Where was ”

    This was true as well for the “straight” lit class I took.

    One Shakespeare play: “Mac” – oops, “the Scottish play.”

    No Twain. No Kipling. No H. Rider Haggard.
    How can you talk of literature of the last two centuries without including “She” and “King Solomon’s Mines?”

    Actually, though, it’s very difficult to think of really good, uplifting literature that does not deal with either sex, religion, or unfortunate contemporary views.

    So once the books are filtered to meet puritan values you end up with a reading list only a Puritan would think worthwhile.

    In college – where my lit prof apologized for making us read “The Old Man and the Sea,” the situation became clear.

    As he put it, if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing sitcoms, with the occasional cop drama thrown in.

    The same for Twain.


    Hemingway would be just as he was, doing just what he did, and everybody who was anybody who wanted to be thought “literate” would have many of his books.

    And they may or may not have read them.

    There’s nothing “wrong” with television today that was not “wrong” with the Globe theater in Shakespeare’s day; and exactly the same sort of people were always chasing players out of town.

    They were accorded a status just above common streetwalkers, assumed to be essentially no different; prostituting their talents for those seeking cheap sensations.

    But as my Lit and drama professor announced to us one day – before showing us the Libretto of “Carmen” – “YOU ARE ALL WHORES!!!.”

    Note that for the most part, the works considered “Literature” by the academic community are written by folks who somehow avoided recognition and profit. Why?

    Because on the open market of the day – they weren’t entertaining enough to command a silver penny.

    So there’s my definition of “literature” for you – if it’s entertainment in the eyes of the common person, it’ can’t be worthwhile. If someone with a sixth grade reading level can read it and understand it – it can’t be literature.

    And if a person without a PHD in English Lit can explain it – it’s not GREAT literature.

    How many reputations have been made by “Finnegan’s Wake?”

    And as I like to say – “Who the hell CARES?”

    Oh, I should note that every once in a while, an academic “Gets it.” There are courses in “Buffyology” – teaching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as literature and insight into the issues and symbolic of adolescence.

    They are of course loudly mocked by serious people in all walks of life.

  17. Mark Odell says:

    NEA chairman Dana Gioia, himself a poet, called the findings shocking and a reason for grave concern.

    I’m shocked, shocked, to discover that state-subsidized “artists” dislike the fact that people, when left free to choose, aren’t consuming their output “voluntarily”! {/SARCASM}

  18. Sigivald says:

    Odd that newspapers and magazines aren’t included in “Reading at Risk”. One assumes that the NEA thinks that it’s only “reading” when the words are on pages boung into a book.

    Perhaps they really meant “English Departments Less Effective At Making People Want To Read Plays And Poems”?


  19. The study looked at whether people read novels (of any quality), poetry and plays, not at whether they read newspapers, magazines, blogs or non-fiction books.

    In defense of Dana Gioia, who I knew slightly in college, he’s not a state-subsidized artist. He had a successful business career while also winning respect as a poet. Before being named to head the NEA, he was vice president of marketing for General Foods.

  20. Ken Summers says:

    I’m still irritated by the elitism that equates “reading” with fiction*. I read no plays, I read no poetry, I read very little fiction. But I read a hell of a lot of non-fiction in a wide variety of subjects: math, science, history, politics, biography, essays. That’s far more interesting than current fiction.

    *This is the same mindset that equates education with humanities and considers innumeracy a badge of honor.

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    Joanne, are you sure?
    Is he leaving out the romance/historical novels, which carry the responsibility for wiping out whole forests on a weekly basis?
    You did say, “any quality”, didn’t you?

  22. Tim from Texas says:

    The economies in the industrialized countries are built upon profits made from selling products and activities of instant gratification of one sort or another. Most are throw-away-products and do-for-awhile activities. Most of the reading material published today is to sell same or to create some new unrestrained excessive lust-craving developed into a perceived need via masochistic-psycho-babble. Considering such facts it’s a wonder people, especially young people, have done any critical reading.

    We all make or receive the greater part of our money from that “manner of doing business” either directly or indirectly and of course, so does the government, the N.E.A. and other like concerns, including schools and universities.

    Therefore, the concern and the wonderment that the multitudes are swallowing those lures is at best stikingly-strange-pride.

  23. Here is an article on this subject, by Harold Bloom. It’s pretty interesting. He sees bright students who don’t have the background to understand references to Chaucer or the Book of Job. I do think that reading the old classics enriches a person’s life, and a shared culture that goes beyond “Friends” or whatever is good for society.

  24. There’s a thread on this topic (click here and scroll down to number 5) started on the listserv of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing. (You’ll see that I repeated my comments above.)

    I hope Joanne Jacobs doesn’t mind. Given some of the comments here and in other posts on Ms. Jacobs ‘blog, I’d like to ask commenters in this thread the following questions in the most open, non-hostile way possible (repeated over on Critical Mass):

    1) What is it you believe English professors are doing in their research and teaching?
    2) How did you come to your conclusions?
    3) What is it you think we should be doing?

  25. I am not a normal reader, since I usually read about 2 to 4 books per week, SF classics and some newer masters [Jack McDevitt, Robt. Sawyer, David Drake], history, and classics. I am halfway through _Moby Dick_, it is incredibly good. But given the prevalence of Borders, B&N, all the web sellers like Amazon, I find it hard to believe that reading is really dying out.

  26. The NEAs basic mistake is to suppose that if large chunks of the American population are becoming less interested in reading poems, plays, and novels, that is a problem. There are two judgments in competition – (a) the judgment of millions of ordinary people who have decided that reading those materials isn’t a high-priority activity, and (b) the judgment of NEA snobs who think there’s a problem if ordinary people don’t want to be just like them. My take – if ordinary people disagree with the NEA, the NEA must be wrong.

    For all we know, the real effect may be that people today are more honest about their reading than people ten years ago were. And God knows how many other things could be producing this reduction in the percentage of people reading “literature” – how about immigration of people who don’t speak much English? Or an increasing number of older people surviving into their eighties because of modern medicine but living long enough to lose their eyesight? That happened to my father – not complete blindness but enough impairment that he couldn’t read. In the 2000 census, the 75 and up age groups showed big increases over 1990 (though the 65-74 age group didn’t, presumably because of lower birth rates during the Depression). The lower proportion of readers could even be a sign of wealth if two-income couples/families have more choices about how to spend their leisure time so reading “literature” is chosen less frequently. This list, while it may be exhausting, is not exhaustive.

    For my part, I stopped reading fiction several years ago, mostly for the reason Steve LaBonne gave: modern fiction isn’t worth the time. I read lots of non-fiction, however.

  27. Mad Scientist says:

    Given some of the comments here and in other posts on Ms. Jacobs ‘blog, I’d like to ask commenters in this thread the following questions in the most open, non-hostile way possible:

    1) What is it you believe English professors are doing in their research and teaching?
    2) How did you come to your conclusions?
    3) What is it you think we should be doing

    Since I never took English in college (back in that day engineers were not expected to waste time with that stuff), I actually have no clue. However, with tongue firmly in cheek:

    1) Engilsh professors actually do research?
    2) Who would actually pay for someone to do research in English?
    3) Something akin to teaching people to actually use the language correctly.

  28. In today’s NY Times Letters to the Editor:

    “Public library visits have more than doubled in the past decade, to nearly 1.2 billion, and circulation continues to grow.”
    Carol Brey-Casiano
    President, American Library Association

  29. John Doe says:

    The boomers are illiterate. The younger generation is using the Internet and text messaging. As usual the dead-tree media haven’t got a clue.

  30. In response to Mad Scientist’s own responses to George Williams’ questions…

    1.) Absolutely
    2.) Not nearly as many people do as should.
    3.) Do you mean people who know not to put periods at the end of sentence fragments?


  1. The NEA Reading Report

    Heard and read the news stories about it. Joanne Jacobs blogged about it, and some of her commenters made the same observation I did: It’s utterly ridiculous to talk about “reading” while limiting the material to “literature” (novels, poetry, plays)….

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