12 February 2009 11:58 AM

Reading's Up in America

by Dr. Rick

Good news for readers of fiction.  In January, the National Endowment for the Arts (www.nea.gov)  released a survey, “Reading on the Rise,” that shows the number of Americans reading fiction for pleasure has increased for the first time since the NEA began studying such matters in 1982.  A little more than half (50.2%) reported reading fiction, up from 46.7%.


That’s music to any English teacher’s ears, mine included.  And, it’s just in time for Read Across America Day, March 2.


People read for three major reasons.


They want information.  We read newspapers and magazines both online and in print, nonfiction – biographies and autobiographies, for example – and other sources of information when we want to learn more about a subject or current event.


They need to perform a task.  We read directions when we need to put together that bookcase from Ikea, to change a tire or the oil in our car, to re-wire our workspace, to learn how to operate a new gadget.


They just want pleasure.  We English teachers like to call this “the literary experience.”  It’s the experience of getting lost in a good book that captures our imagination, entertains us, transports us, enlightens us, expands our horizons.


So hearing that we Americans are reading more – in an age of endless other more flashy diversions no less – is one of those “good” news items fit to savor for a while.  The entire report is not exactly brimming with good news, though.


We’re reading more fiction, but the number of Americans reading books not required for work or school dropped again, as it has every year since 1982.  Does this mean we’re reading more but doing so only because someone is making us do so?


The survey does not include non-fiction.  I’m not sure why not.  Reading non-fiction can be just as much a “literary experience” as reading fiction.  (I’m a huge fan of David McCullough.)  But I won’t quibble.


The nay-sayers will carry on about fiction’s being the province of the “cultural elite.”  (By the way, can we ban that tired, meaningless phrase from public discourse?)  Defenders of non-fiction will cry “foul.”  And students will say it’s all homework anyway, so what’s the big deal?


I’m not sure it matters much.  In these days when good news seems more and more difficult to find, I’ll take whatever I can get.  More people are reading fiction?  I’m celebrating!


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