American Literacy: Still Dead


Presumably, I wasn’t the only young writer yesterday to get a call from not just his mother but also his grandmother to the effect that American literacy had been saved, and thus I had a future, right? Etc. Mokoto Rich’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times reported on a new study from the National Endowment for the Arts which claimed to show that “the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen.” This finding contradicts, among other things, a 2007 New Yorker piece by Caleb Crain that was quite skeptical of long-term prospects of American reading rates, and today Crain takes to his blog to wearily but persuasively refute, or at least throw into question, the gains on which Rich is reporting. To wit:

    If other indicators were favorable–in particular, if there were better prospects for newspapers or book publishers, or if anyone had figured out how to make enough money off of writing on the internet to subsidize lots of high-caliber investigative reporting–I might be willing to partake in the festivities. As things stand, though, I think the fate of reading is still a matter of concern.

Crain attributes his pessimism to factors as varied as the fact that the in the long view, American reading rates are still trending down; the incentive caused by the literacy panic for people to lie about how often they read the next time they were surveyed; and the month in which the survey was conducted. It’s that first point, helpfully accompanied with a graph in Caleb’s post, that probably best tells the story. Sorry Grandma–writers are still fucked.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 13, 2009

Archive Highlights