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Reading Rates by Schooling

What follows isn’t all that surprising: The higher a person’s educational achievement, the more likely that person is to be a literary reader. Literary reader? The phrase comes from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) formulated in its surveys of reading. Such a reader reads fiction (novels and short fiction), poetry, and drama (plays). NEA is anxious for us to know that these materials do include all fiction, not just literary, thus science fiction, mysteries, and romances included. The definition includes reading such material on the Internet, on a digital device, or on a printed product.  The graphic shows reading rates for the years 2002 and 2008 as assembled by the NEA.

Two things jump out at us. One is the mere fact that nearly half of all adults in 2008 (49.8%) do not read literature as above defined—and that even among the college educated, 31.9 percent are never inclined to exercise their imagination in the act of reading. The second aspect of these data that puzzles us a little is the significant increase in reading rates in this brief six-year period. Readership is up 3.5 percent for all adult. It is very interesting that the biggest jump, a whopping 11 percent increase, has come in that part of the adult population lacking a high school degree.

Not shown in the graph—but highlighted in the source of these data, the NEA’s Reading on the Rise report (available for download here)—is the fact that in this period the reading in poetry has plummeted 3.9 percent and the reading of plays 1 percent. According to the NEA there has been a steep decline in the percentage of women reading poetry. The slack has been taken up by fiction.

The NEA presents no answers to the Why questions we have, so we may as well give our uninformed guesstimates.  The increase in reading generally must have something to do either with the rise of the Internet or with the increasing wretchedness of television entertainment programming. It’s gotten so bad that it has actually driven some non-readers to reading. Imagine that. As for women abandoning the reading of poetry? We need not answer that one. They’re out there in the workforce by day and laboring on hearth and home at night! The eyes close even as you reach for hail to thee blithe spirit.


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