New on the endangered species list: the bookworm
First, there's e-mail to check. Then instant messages to send and a conference call before you go. Your older son has soccer practice, but he needs new cleats on the way. The twins are coming home from dance camp and you promised they could watch a DVD tonight - but only after dinner, and only after you help them with their two reports on endangered species. It's your uncle's birthday, too - but you can call him in the car. And if you're hoping for a raise, be back at work by 8 p.m.Skip to next paragraph
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Maybe it's not surprising that Americans have lost touch with their inner bookworms, or that reading has become more luxury than habit. There are simply too many other outlets - chirping, blinking, buzzing - that promise to simplify your life or fill your spare moments, assuming you still have any.
Busy lives and cultural clutter help explain why Americans are reading less and less these days - dropping books, in fact, at a rate that's tripled over the past 10 years. The latest evidence of America's bookish decline came in a comprehensive study unveiled last week by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In one sense, the findings weren't particularly jarring: Americans have been reading less for more than a decade. But what was unexpected was the rate of decline: The numbers are starker than expected.
Consider that, while America has gained 40 million adults in the past 20 years, only about 600,000 more people are reading literature (defined in the study as fiction, poetry, or drama). The habit is down across the board - in every racial, age, and ethnic category, across all income levels and regions - and the decline is worst among young adults. For the first time in history, less than half the adult population reads literature. Nearly two-thirds of men don't read it at all. Among Americans over 18, the rate of decline has nearly tripled in 10 years, accelerating from 5 to 14 percent.
To some, it's a sign not just of changing habits, but of a society that's becoming less imaginative. As America loses its drive to read, they say - the act that "returns you to otherness," in the words of literary critic Harold Bloom - it becomes a nation of oblivious narcissists with a shrinking capacity to empathize, imagine, visualize, and dream. "We are seeing, I think, a great dumbing down of America," says Dana Gioia, NEA chairman. "We've never had a population so seemingly well educated or so affluent - and yet we have proportionally fewer readers."
For the publishing industry and the reading public, it's fearsome news. But for Mr. Gioia, the most startling revelation goes to the core of democracy itself. Readers in the NEA study were three times as likely to do volunteer and charity work and visit museums and performances as were nonreaders - and twice as likely to attend sporting events. "So even if you don't particularly care for books, the civic and cultural consequences of this study are terrifying for a free society," he says. "You cannot delegate a democratic society to a small elite."
As with any good detective novel, the usual suspects are here - but surprises are, too. As websites and talk radio proliferate, reading is no longer the only way, or even the primary one, of getting information. In the past 20 years, American homes have come abuzz with everything from the Internet to iPods. Demands on time have grown. Attention spans have shrunk. But the amount of TV viewing isn't all that different between readers and nonreaders: Those who don't read literature take in only 24 extra minutes of TV a day.