14 January 2009

Is Our Grownups Reading?

Earlier this week the National Endowment for the Arts, under chairman Dana Gioia released an optimistic report called "Reading on the Rise," available for downloading.

I detect a bit of cynicism in Publishers Marketplace's article on the report: “Outgoing NEA Chairman ‘Proves’ He Helped Raise Reading.” That article went on to say, “Aside from the yeoman efforts of the NEA chairman, what could possibly explain the sudden change? ‘In 2008, the survey introduced new questions about reading preferences and reading on the Internet.’”

And indeed, in small print at the top of page 3, the report says, “In this report, ‘literary’ reading refers to the reading of any novels, short stories, poems, or plays in print or online.”

At the time of the last such report in 2002, I complained (without having Oz and Ends to do so) that defining “literary” to exclude all non-fiction skewed the survey. That meant “literature” excluded complex and well-written histories, autobiographies, political arguments, scientific explorations, philosophical essays, sports books, etc. Having excluded those books from consideration, the surveys have, not surprisingly, found fewer men reading “literature” than women. (That finding remains in this year’s report.)

In 2008 that restriction on “literature” remains, but the survey expanded the definition of “reading” to include online works. I've also complained (this time with the vast resources of Oz and Ends) that saying children spend too much time on the internet to read misses the fact that you basically need to read to get around online. (You just don't need to punctuate or spell.)

Gioia's preface reflects the old view that reading pixels instead of print didn't really count:

A decline in both reading and reading ability was clearly documented in the first generation of teenagers and young adults raised in a society full of videogames, cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices.
Yet now this survey does include as "literary" any novels or short stories read via "cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices."

So I'm glad the NEA and Census Bureau have added online reading to their question. However, that fudges the data, doesn't it? To see real trends, we have to compare like to like. Since the 2002 survey asked only about “literary” reading in print, what's the comparable data in 2008? Well, I don't see how to extract it from the NEA's published report. There’s no way to compare print-only data for successive years, nor to separate out respondents who read online only.

But we can see some of the effect in finding #4: "Literary reading has increased most rapidly among the youngest adults," aged 18-24. And in the graphic for finding #11: Twenty percent of that age group stated that they read "literature" online. So the biggest rise appeared in the group that does the most online reading. That seems significant.

Hillel Italie's report for the Associated Press zeroed in on the one decline noted among the findings, and that fudged by the emphasis on absolute numbers rather than percentage:
10. Book-readers have grown in absolute numbers but declined slightly as a percentage of the U.S. adult population.
The AP article says:
In a preface to the new report, being released shortly before Gioia steps down after heading the endowment for seven years, he cites a nationwide effort and says the results demonstrate that "our faith in positive social and cultural change was not misplaced."

But the preface does not mention a countertrend: a drop among people not obligated to read. Adults who read books of any kind--fiction or nonfiction, online or on paper--that were not assigned by a teacher or employer dropped from 56.6 percent of adults in 2002 to 54.3 percent last year. The fall was greatest among those younger than 55.

And while the number of adults who say they read a non-required book is 3.5 million higher than in 2002, the report notes that that the total adult population increased by 19 million, meaning an increase in the number of people who didn't voluntarily read books of 15.5 million, a huge disparity confirmed by NEA research director Sunil Iyengar.
And once again I point to something I wrote about the last reading survey: once a study excludes reading “assigned by a teacher or employer,” we're no longer looking at overall reading. An American (especially a student) could be reading literature or other complex books all the time, yet show up on such a survey as a complete non-reader if all that reading is required. In headline form: More Homework Assignments Mean Less Time to Read for Pleasure.

I should say that I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Dana Gioia and hearing him speaking about the poet H. W. Longfellow in 2007. I found him smart and smartly dressed. He also has a background in marketing, and knows how to sell a survey.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. The survey results irritated me to no end -- a classic case of innumeracy.

Anonymous said...

"saying children spend too much time on the internet to read misses the fact that you basically need to read to get around online. (You just don't need to punctuate or spell.)"

Ha ha ha ha!

I share your frustration with the "nonfiction doesn't count" mentality -- and you're right that like should be compared to like. I'm glad that online reading is getting acknowledged, but using it to skew the numbers was uncool.