Decline and Fall and Fall and Fall


I’m amazed you’re reading this—or reading anything at all.

“For the first time in modern history, less than half the adult population now reads literature . . . [amid] our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information,” thundered NEA chairman Dana Gioia earlier this summer. “Greater understanding of human motivation and behavior, for instance, can be gleaned from a multi-dimensional novel than from the fleeting images on a video screen. The indictment to be made against the Internet as a disturber of reading in America is considerable.”

Terribly sorry—I’ve mixed up my notes. Only the first sentence was written by Gioia. The second appeared in a New York Times piece inveighing against television . . . in 1959. And the third? Replace “Internet” with “motor” and “America” with “England,” and you’ll find that sentence in a 1909 newspaper article titled “Motor Enemy of Reading.” Automobiles, it seems, were lobotomizing our friends from across the pond.

“Reading at Risk,” proclaimed the cover of the NEA’s curiously familiar-sounding call to arms issued in July. For a man appointed by a president whose last known act of reading was “The Pet Goat,” Gioia sure is upset at everyone else’s literary laziness. Wielding a “comprehensive survey . . . based on an enormous sample size,” Gioia found that “literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.

“The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture,” he concludes, “will study the pages of this report in vain.” The figures certainly look dire. The percentage of American adults reading literature has declined from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 54 percent in 1992 and 46.7 percent in 2002. But now (ahem) read the wording of the question: “The survey asked respondents if, during the previous twelve months, they had read any novels, short stories, plays, or poetry in their leisure time (not for work or school).” It will come as news to historians and memoirists, working in the two most vibrantly evolving genres of the last decade, that what they create does not constitute “reading.” Nor, for that matter, do essays or graphic narratives.

See, Bergdorf Blondes is literature; Persepolis is not.

The question’s wording also rules out any students who may already be reading for their classes, and for that reason are not engaged in leisure reading. Fancy that: You can be an English major and still be a nonreader. And then, when you’re done working on your term paper, you can relax in the campus coffeehouse Not-Reading newspapers and magazines, and fire up your laptop to Not-Read the blogs and the latest wire reports.

Maybe Reading at Risk should really have been called Reading Several Genres Favored in a Certain Historical Period at Risk. Still, might the NEA’s focus on these more allegedly artsy forms of reading be due to their social significance? Literary readers, we are primly informed by the NEA, are more likely than nonreaders to be involved in charity work. Whether this constitutes a meaningful and causal correlation, alas, is less obvious. A set of statistics buried in Reading at Risk shows “literary reading” rising hand in hand with income levels and education. Might we wonder whether people with the time and education to read novels might be better situated to provide charity in the first place?

Why yes, we might wonder. But the NEA did not.

Surprisingly, for a document trumpeting its white-lab-coat credentials, nowhere in Reading at Risk‘s numbers is its margin of error noted. Nor is an even more serious problem addressed. The NEA’s figures were compiled through telephone surveys each decade, which we are informed had a response rate of 70 percent in 2002. Presumably that response rate is for those people who picked up the phone. But much has changed in phone usage since the 1992 survey, including widespread use of voice mail, machine screening, and caller ID, all of which allow sizable numbers of potential respondents to now select themselves out of the pool of respondents without changing the alleged response rate. It may be impossible to compare a 2002 phone survey with those of previous decades—not because the survey changed, but because the phones did.

No matter. While Reading at Risk‘s moral inspiration is obviously William Bennett, its statistical conclusions are pure Rufus T. Firefly. “At the current rate of loss,” the report yells, “literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.”

Really? To answer this question, let’s look for a moment at the photograph of NEA chairman Dana Gioia displayed in the report’s introduction. He’s a trim-looking fellow: I’d guess about 165 pounds. Now, let’s say that Dana’s been hitting the maple scones lately, and gained four pounds in the last month. By applying Reading at Risk‘s statistical model of linear progression, I hereby predict that in 50 years time, NEA chairman Dana Gioia will weigh 2,565 pounds.

And the real cause of this impending obese illiteracy? Well, we all know the answer to that one. “The computer, brighter and better than books,” reports the NEA, “which was supposed to lead men and women to the library, merely lures human moths to chat rooms.” Dreadfully sorry: my mistake again. I’ve made hash of a Times article from 1937: Edison’s electric lamp, brighter and better than gas, oil, or candles, which was supposed to lead men and women to the library, merely lures human moths to Main Street.

Now here’s what the NEA chairman actually did say about electric lam . . . um, computers: “Although the news in the report is dire, I doubt that any careful observer of American society will be greatly surprised—except by the sheer magnitude of the decline . . . [accompanied by the rise of] video games and the Internet, [which] foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification.” So insidious is this shortened attention span that it appears to have prevented Gioia from reading his own agency’s report, since it explicitly notes that it found no such causality. Well, perhaps we can find evidence elsewhere. What about the world’s most electronics-smitten country? Surely it’d be a harbinger of what’s to come for the U.S.

Is reading big in Japan?

Since 1947 the Mainichi Shinbunsha newspaper company has performed an annual door-to-door Dokusho Yoron Chosa (“Public Reading Survey”) on just this question. But their question, not reliant on telephone responses, also includes all forms of reading—fiction, nonfiction, manga, and periodicals alike. The result? Pollsters found that Japanese reading rates have risen in the last two decades.

And yet, as in the United States, Japanese cultural conservatives fret over dokusho-banare—a “detachment from reading.” The latest culprit is the cell phone, since what little reading it entails involves thumbing away through execrable text-messaging shorthand. “Will any endure to read or write at all that delicate composition which we now call a letter, and not rather pervade the length and breadth of the country, each for himself, with a kind of running conversation—a continual communication of small gossip and detached thoughts—new clothes—new acquaintances—dinner parties, and bon mots?” asks one worried Japanese critic. “Can we suppose that the real antique letter will at all survive the revolution, and not be swept away in a flood of notes?”

Ah! I fear I have misplaced my date and author again. That quote was taken verbatim from British Critic magazine in 1842. They were fretting over the introduction of penny postage for letters. Conservatives must always have something to conserve, you see.

Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue,” Gioia insists. I’m not so sure of that. Gioia seems happy indeed to grind out the old hurdy-gurdy song of cultural decay, dolefully performed by codgers who believe that Reading is declining and falling, rather than merely Reading as They Knew It. What Gioia and centuries of soundalikes never seem to learn is that it does keep falling, but toward a cultural ground forever speeding away from underneath it. Art, it seems, is rather like a satellite—perpetually hurtling earthward, and yet curiously fixed in its orbit.

Paul Collins edits the Collins Library for McSweeney’s Books. His latest book is Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism.