The Decline of Literary Reading--and Community Involvement

People who read literature for pleasure are three times as likely to volunteer in their communities, but the number of readers is declining at an alarming rate. The Big Read, a program launched by the National Endowment for the Arts, encourages communities to read a great novel together.
“Reading at Risk,” a 2004 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, reveals an alarming decline in the number of Americans who read literature for pleasure. Fewer than half of all American adults now spend any time reading novels, plays, poems, or short stories, representing a drop from 54 percent of the adult population to 46.7 percent in just 10 years. The number of men who read is declining faster than the number of women, but the number of young people who read literature is dropping at an even faster rate. The trend is doubly alarming because, as the survey documents, readers play a more active and involved role in their communities.

Implications for Community Life
As a survey of more than 17,000 people, “Reading at Risk” is one of the most comprehensive polls of reading and reading-related behaviors ever conducted. Unfortunately, the results are uniformly disheartening. In comparing this survey against those conducted at 10-year intervals since 1982, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia says, “Ten years ago there was good news mixed with the bad; this time around, every indicator is negative, some alarmingly so.”

The decline in reading has dire implications for community life in the United States. As the survey indicates, people who read volunteer at three times the level of people who don’t. In Gioia’s opinion, a cultural transformation has bifurcated the American people into a nation of passive and active individuals. The passive portion of the population spends its free time immersed in electronic entertainment. The active portion reads, exercises, goes to museums and ball games, and participates in volunteer and charitable activities.

It’s not clear why readers are more active participants, but Gioia suspects that reading gives people a clearer sense of themselves as individuals and makes them appreciate the individuality and diversity of other people. “The reader sustains attention and uses memory and imagination,” Gioia says. “Reading—especially literature—gives an increased sense of the interior minds of other people.”

The Big Read Hits Communities
In an effort to reverse the trend and create more readers, the NEA has launched a national program called The Big Read, following the model of community-wide reading programs. According to Gioia, the initial phase of the Big Read is taking place in 10 communities across the United States—rural and urban, small and large—with more communities to be added each year. Built on partnerships among civic organizations and government agencies in each city or town, the Big Read is supported by NEA funding and resources, including readers’ guides, author readings, film screenings, TV, radio and print publicity, and informational websites.

In the initial stage, communities choose one of four novels for their local reading program: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. All are American literary classics, appealing to diverse audiences. Additional books will be announced this spring.

In Topeka, Kansas, where Their Eyes Were Watching God has been selected, involved participants include the mayor’s office, libraries, high schools, retirement communities, and local businesses. There are billboards and banners around the city to draw attention to the book, and concerts and lectures inspired by it. The program has brought together readers from diverse communities, bridging the racial divide and encouraging further discussion.

Fostering a Return to Reading

The “Reading at Risk” study “resonated strongly with me,” says Carla Dearing, president & CEO of Community Foundations of America. “We know how important reading is, and the role of literacy in expanding the imagination. The sense of magical discovery that we all had as youngsters is being lost to a generation of non-readers.” Still worse, she says, is the finding that non-readers are much less likely to participate in their communities.

In an effort to reverse the decline in reading and to foster strong communities, CFA is developing a template for community foundations to use on their websites that features the NEA’s national research as a way to reach out to donors. “Community foundations are constantly working on the root causes of societal problems,” Dearing says. In fact, many community foundations already have robust reading and literacy programs in place. Dearing cites the example of the “Raising A Reader” program, started at Peninsula Community Foundation, which puts high-quality picture books in the homes of thousands of low-income families in Northern California. The program encourages “book-cuddling” between parents and their young children, as the shared reading experience increases kindergarten readiness.

A Call to Action
In order to maintain levels of civic involvement, communities have an imperative to encourage literary reading. Without action, the situation will only deteriorate. As “Reading at Risk” documents, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century. As the survey report sums up the situation, “If one believes that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy, the decline of literary reading calls for serious action.” The Big Read, by providing essential support and making reading a social activity, is a first step toward reversing the decline.

Related Links:

NEA Big Read

Raising Grader

Grace W. Weinstein, a former columnist for the Financial Times and the author of 13 books, is a freelance writer based in Englewood, N.J.

Copyright 2006 Community Foundations of America
Used with Permission

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Posted at 12:18 PM, Oct 31, 2006 in Education | Poverty | Youth | Permalink | Comment