To Read or Not To Read gathers and collates the best national data available to provide a reliable and comprehensive overview of American reading today. While it incorporates some statistics from the National Endowment for the Arts' 2004 report, Reading at Risk , this new study contains vastly more data from numerous sources. Although most of this information is publicly available, it has never been assembled and analyzed as a whole. To our knowledge, To Read or Not To Read is the most complete and up-to-date report of the nation's reading trends and -- perhaps most important -- their considerable consequences.
To Read or Not To Read relies on the most accurate data available, which consists of large, national studies conducted on a regular basis by U.S. federal agencies, supplemented by academic, foundation, and business surveys. Reliable national statistical research is expensive and time-consuming to conduct, especially when it requires accurate measurements of various subgroups (age or education level, for example) within the overall population. Likewise, such research demands formidable resources and a commitment from an organization to collect the data consistently over many years, which is the only valid way to measure both short and long-term trends. Few organizations outside the federal government can manage such a painstaking task. By comparison, most private-sector or media surveys involve quick and isolated polls conducted with a minimal sample size.
When one assembles data from disparate sources, the results often present contradictions. This is not the case with To Read or Not To Read . Here the results are startling in their consistency. All of the data combine to tell the same story about American reading.
The story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates. These negative trends have more than literary importance. As this report makes clear, the declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications.
How does one summarize this disturbing story? As Americans, especially younger Americans, read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they have lower levels of academic achievement. (The shameful fact that nearly one-third of American teenagers drop out of school is deeply connected to declining literacy and reading comprehension.) With lower levels of reading and writing ability, people do less well in the job market. Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement. Significantly worse reading skills are found among prisoners than in the general adult population. And deficient readers are less likely to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting.
Strictly understood, the data in this report do not necessarily show cause and effect. The statistics merely indicate correlations. The habit of daily reading, for instance, overwhelmingly correlates with better reading skills and higher academic achievement. On the other hand, poor reading skills correlate with lower levels of financial and job success. At the risk of being criticized by social scientists, I suggest that since all the data demonstrate consistent and mostly linear relationships between reading and these positive results -- and between poor reading and negative results -- reading has played a decisive factor. Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways.
All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals -- whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual's academic and economic success -- facts that are not especially surprising -- but it also seems to awaken a person's social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports -- no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact -- books change lives for the better.
Some people will inevitably criticize To Read or Not To Read as a negative report-- understating the good works of schools, colleges, libraries, and publishers. Certainly, the trends reported here are negative. There is, alas, no factual case to support general growth in reading or reading comprehension in America. But there is another way of viewing this data that is hardly negative about reading.
To Read or Not To Read confirms -- without any serious qualification -- the central importance of reading for a prosperous, free society. The data here demonstrate that reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities. Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.
To Read or Not To Read is not an elegy for the bygone days of print culture, but instead is a call to action -- not only for parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and publishers, but also for politicians, business leaders, economists, and social activists. The general decline in reading is not merely a cultural issue, though it has enormous consequences for literature and the other arts. It is a serious national problem. If, at the current pace, America continues to lose the habit of regular reading, the nation will suffer substantial economic, social, and civic setbacks.
As with Reading at Risk , we issue this report not to dictate any specific remedial policies, but to initiate a serious discussion. It is no longer reasonable to debate whether the problem exists. It is now time to become more committed to solving it or face the consequences. The nation needs to focus more attention and resources on activities both fundamental and irreplaceable for democracy.
To Read or Not to Read is available in the publications section of the website.
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal agency