Reflections on the Decline of Reading


John Hallwas


            I return to the issue of reading from time to time, both because I’m an obsessive serious reader, and have been since I was a teenager, and because the signs of significant decline in book reading, with potentially disastrous consequences for our country, are mounting.

            In America the most widely discussed indications of the decline in serious reading have come from the National Endowment for the Arts. For example, that agency’s 2004 report, “Reading at Risk,” revealed that only 46 percent of the population read literature, down from 54 percent in 1992 and from about 57 percent in 1982.   

            Three years later, the NEA followed that report with “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” which was a far more comprehensive analysis of American reading patterns, based on more than 40 studies. The key findings are grim.

            For example, less than one third of our 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers (that is, literate young people who simply don’t read) has doubled over that same 20-year period, and now approximates one out of five. Non-reading college graduates have also doubled. Americans are also reading less well, for reading test scores, especially for young people, continue to worsen.  

            What’s at risk in this downward trend?  First, there is the obvious matter that people who do little or no serious reading (that is, reading for other than practical purposes or shallow amusement) don’t comprehend others, or their culture, or the complexities of reality, as well as those who do such reading. As NEA Chairman Dana Goia pointed out in “Reading at Risk,” we “can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted,” and “as more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded.” 

            In short, capable, active readers make insightful, committed citizens, so our nation and our communities will operate less and less well if we don’t make the pursuit of serious reading a priority---for ourselves, as adults, as well as for the children we raise and try to educate.

            There are already clear signs that millions of Americans cannot detect the calculated deceit behind even the most obvious distortions, character attacks, and lies that repeatedly come through politically biased “talk radio” and certain TV outlets. I am convinced that if a leader of Lincoln’s brilliance was around in our time, many would not read or comprehend his probing speeches, or appreciate the cultural truth and social complexity of his vision. And if self-serving opponents labeled Lincoln a mindless hick, or an enemy of true Americanism, millions of people would simply regard him as such. In short, our very capacity to comprehend our nation is at risk.

            Of course, the reading decline is rooted in negative cultural changes. Far too many Americans admire financial success or mere celebrity status, however those might be achieved, more than the broadening of one’s mind or the deepening of one’s character. So why read? And are the devotees of Twitter and Facebook challenging themselves, and growing in comprehension of the world, or just fawning over their narrow experience and limited views in an effort to attract or entertain others who have also given up on the challenge of self-growth?

           Indeed, the sheer busyness of our technologically immersed lives tends to prevent the kind of sustained attention that an engaging book demands. And as NEA Chairman Goia has put it, “Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no reasonable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”

          Moreover, the decline of reading---which is nothing less than sustained attention to the complex lives, issues, cultures, and ideas in our world---can’t be reversed by our schools, unless those schools convey and symbolize America’s renewed commitment to serious reading. And that means we can’t just encourage young people to read; we must show them our own continuing need for, and fascination with, books worth reading.

          The most renowned of our founding fathers, the brilliant Thomas Jefferson, whose personal library eventually became the basis for the Library of Congress, once declared, in an 1815 letter to his fellow revolutionary era hero, democratic theorist, and past president, John Adams, “I cannot live without books.” The equally remarkable Adams, himself an avid reader and the author of books on democratic governmental systems, surely agreed.

          The question for our time is, “Can Americans today, who view themselves as thoughtful individuals comprising the world’s greatest and most complex nation, increasingly live without books---and not both betray their democratic heritage and defeat their ideals?”