2. Decline? What decline?

Some of the most literate people I know have written that the decline in reading in America has been exaggerated and is unworthy of serious concern. The July 2004 report on reading by the National Endowment for the Arts came in for a lot of this pooh-poohing. None of the pooh-poohing convinces me.

The NEA found that the proportion of American adults who had read any work of imaginative literature in the preceding year declined as follows:

1982 1992 2002
56.9% 54.0% 46.7%

These numbers are dismaying, and the deeper you go into them, the worse the news is. First, note that not only has the percentage of literary readers declined but the rate of loss has accelerated. Second, if you break these numbers down by age cohort and by education, you discover that the decline obtains in all categories. In other words, every age group read less in 2002 than it did a decade before. If you look at the age charts and read them diagonally—that is, if you track the reading patterns of a single age cohort through time, instead of comparing, say, twenty-four-year-olds of 2002 to twenty-four-year-olds of 1992—the numbers also decline. Fewer forty-year-olds read literature today than did thirty-year-olds a decade ago, and those who do read, read fewer books.

The most common retort to this bad news focuses on the NEA’s definition of literature, which excludes nonfiction and graphic novels, among other genres. This might be an answer, if there were reason to believe that there is a large, new group of people who over the course of a year read literary nonfiction but scrupulously avoid reading any novels, poems, short stories, or plays. I doubt there are very many such people who are really new—that is, for whom there was no corresponding population in 1982 or 1992. But even if there is such a sizable new population, the NEA’s data show that they cannot be affecting the overall decline in reading by very much. In 1992 and 2002, the NEA also asked respondents whether in the previous year they had read any book. The answer:

1992 2002
60.9% 56.6%

In other words, the ratio of people reading any book at all also declined. The dropoff is not as steep as that in literary reading, but there is no insulation from the bad news in the notion that people are reading John Adams biographies instead of Jonathan Franzen novels.

Nor is it any defense to note that the decline has been lamented for a long time, and that despite the alarm, the culture has survived. It is true that there is little chance that reading will ever go extinct. Nothing suggests that novels will abruptly cease to be published. But a shift away from literature might still produce a qualitative change in the culture. It is not necessary for a change to be total in order for it to be significant.

Nor is it any defense to say that there have never been very many serious readers in any culture, in raw numbers, so it’s no surprise that as the population expands, the percentage of readers declines. Or, a corollary of this, to say that the raw number of book-purchasing readers remains high, and the publishing industry still puts out a high volume. In a democracy, where every adult citizen may vote, it’s the proportion of readers, not their raw number, that is likely to affect the political culture.

The NEA’s numbers—and those in the Pew Research Center’s similar report on newspaper readership, published a couple of years ago—suggest that a tipping point has been reached. Text is no longer the first way that most Americans learn about their world or imagine their world. Since the advent of television, we have been moving from a textual culture to a streaming culture, but some dam broke in the last half-decade, and the changes have been accelerating. At some point, once we have reached a new equilibrium point, the acceleration will stop. We will then be living in a different world.