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By Nathan Bierma


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The Books & Culture Weblog

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WHEN BOOKWORMS BECOME CHICKEN LITTLES

It only takes one study to make book lovers turn apocalyptic. Last week, that study was Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, unveiled by the National Endowment for the Arts at the New York Public Library. "What this study does is give us accurate numbers that support our worst fears about American reading," said NEA chairman Dana Gioia. "Reading is in decline among all groups, in every region, at every educational level and within every ethnic group." The New York Timessummed up: "Fewer than half of Americans over 18 now read novels, short stories, plays or poetry; the consumer pool for books of all kinds has diminished; and the pace at which the nation is losing readers, especially young readers, is quickening." Those who said they had read a book at all in the past year declined from 61 percent in 1992 to 56 percent in 2002. The number of readers who reported reading literature is at its 1982 level of about 96 million people—but there are 40 million more Americans than there were then. Gioia said the data is "deeply alarming."

But both the Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education (here) were far too hasty to proclaim that the literary sky is falling. For one thing, the first comparable study was done in 1982, so it's quite an extrapolation to place these results on a grand downward curve that stretches back to a golden age of reading (wouldn't a study of the decline of network television viewing since that year seem perilous for that medium?). I'd like to see a study on how many more readers there are now compared with 100 years ago, when literacy was rarer, and when average Americans were not surrounded by ubiquitous bookstores selling affordable copies of the classics, as they are now.

This is not to deny that reading is fighting an uphill battle (nor that booksellers today largely subsist on the empty calories of Dr. Phil and other faddish inanities). But the severity of the challenge of visual media may only make the NEA's report more encouraging. Personally, I'm amazed that the practice of reading books (and business of selling them) has hung on as well as it did through the radio revolution, and then the television revolution, and then the Internet revolution. The Times wasn't blind to this big picture. It quoted former California state librarian Kevin Starr as saying the study's findings were "not bad, actually. … In an age where there's no canon, where there are so many other forms of information, and where we're returning to medieval-like oral culture based on television," he said, "I think that's pretty impressive." (For a tribute to the late Walter Ong, Jesuit scholar of orality, media, and culture, see the current issue of B&C). As a member of the 18-24 demographic the NEA is especially worried about, let me predict that the pleasure of reading a good book—and the ineffable silent communion with the voice from the page—will never go out of style.

Related:
Lack of reading dooms us all, says author Andrew Solomon in a Times op-ed
Earlier:
Books, books everywhere, and but a drop to read, by John Wilson in B&C
The surprisingly robust state of reading, last year in this weblog   
The literary tastes of middlebrow America, last week in this weblog

PLACES & CULTURE

From the New York Times :

LUANG PRABANG, Laos - This former royal capital perches on the banks of the Mekong River, a gorgeous medley of gilded temples and pagodas, creaking wooden homes and some spruced-up vestiges of the French colonial era.  … Now the foreigners are back. … Specifically, Unesco, the United Nations agency that fosters the preservation of important historic sites. … The town was named a world heritage site by Unesco in 1995, a designation that makes it eligible for United Nations preservation funds. Among other things, the residents are being offered traditional-style plaster instead of the big no-no—concrete—for refurbishment. But the requests are being met with … resistance. "When we explain that timber is part of the tradition, they don't understand, because to people here timber is the material of the poor," said Emmanuel Pouille, a French architect and historian, who is the chief technical adviser to the Unesco project. "Here, concrete is a symbol of being rich. They say, 'Why can't we live like the people in the suburbs of Bangkok?' ''

• Some of the most talented writers in America have made their way to Iowa City, drawn by the University of Iowa's renowned Iowa Writers' Workshop. John Cheever, Philip Roth and Robert Lowell dropped by to teach; John Irving, Bharati Mukherjee and Margaret Walker first came to learn. Many come away professing lasting affection for this city of bursting bookstores, leafy old neighborhoods and friendly shopkeepers, set amid rolling Iowa farmland and where nearly half the 63,000 residents are students. Not all the cafe conversation is literary—U.I. turns out the usual mix of professionals from engineers to dentists. And when writer's block strikes, you can usually find somebody at the next table to talk Big Ten football.

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