For $1 Million: What is a Novel?

Here's a telling factoid about Ken Jennings, the "Jeopardy!" sensation who went for $1 million Tuesday night in his 30th show:

The software engineer from Salt Lake City writes literature questions for the National Academic Quiz Tournament. He knows his way around the classics - and a lot of other subjects - and now it's paying off.

Sadly, less than half of American adults now read literature, according to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Based on a 2002 Census survey of more than 17,000 people, the number of adults who had read a novel, short story, play, or poem the previous year declined 10 percent compared with 20 years ago.

The rate of decline among young adults was precipitous: 55 percent greater than the overall rate. This is especially disheartening given that they represent America's future. The publishing industry has been targeting this age group so caught up by electronic entertainment. Yet young people seem impervious to the pitch that reading for pleasure and richness of life is a most worthwhile activity.

One bright spot is the tremendous interest in nonfiction these days: history, politics, and biography.

But literature taps the imagination as no other writing can. Perhaps now that Mr. Jennings has wowed millions with his command of facts, he can help turn people to one of his other loves - the world of fiction. Could his next role be as literature's poster boy?

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