14 Jul

The Worm in the Brain

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 07/14/04

A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts supplies statistics that demonstrate that the number of readers in America is declining. The report is introduced in an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Literary Reading Is Declining Faster Than Before, Arts Endowment's New Report Says." As the article explains, the report portrays a steep decline in "literary reading" (described as the reading of any type of fiction, poetry, and plays) over the past two decades; it also describes some reactions to the report's findings.

"Reading at Risk: a Survey of Literary Reading in America" reports data gathered from 17,000 adults across major demographic groups categorized by age, gender, education, income, religion, race, and ethnicity. It addresses what and how much those sampled read, other civic activities in which they participate, factors and trends in literature participation, and includes a summary and conclusions. It comprises a preface and executive summary, five chapters, and appendices.

The report's role, says chairman of the NEA Dana Gioia, is not to offer suggestions for a solution to the problem, but to spark debate about how to perpetuate readers and the role of reading in a democracy. In his introduction to the report, Gioia (a guest on volumes 51 and 53 of the Journal) writes: "Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose."

While the concern of the NEA report is specific to literary reading and its decline, others quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education article are concerned with a general decrease in reading in this electronically savvy age. In a 1995 interview with Ken Myers, Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, discussed the influence the printed word has on society. In his Volume 13 interview, Birkerts argued that when people read less and thus lose "habits of reading"—such as inwardness, empathy for the lives of others, and a sense of the significance of the past—they understand themselves and the world differently. Barry Sanders concurred with Birkerts in his Volume 17 interview about his book A Is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word. Sanders argued that literacy is an historical invention and thus can dissipate in time just as it developed in time. As it becomes extinct, he said, people will begin to lose their conscience, memory, and sense-of-self and regret—all outgrowths of literacy—and thus will no longer be able to recognize others as human beings.

Another guest on the Journal, Robert Jenson, is concerned more specifically with the diminution of the attention given by the community to books in the University and the Church, and the consequential enervation of the vision for knowledge and wisdom at the core of both institutions. Descriptions of the Birkerts, Sanders, and Jenson interviews are available through the MARS HILL AUDIO web pages.