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.

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.

The 'dumbing down' of America

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.

And as reading swerves in all directions and the 1950s "Book of the Month" clubs give way to Oprah Winfrey's book list, "grass roots" reading, and niche markets (think "chick lit"), Americans have a fainter sense of what they "should" read. The idea of a cultured person has broadened, says Tim Morris, an English professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, "eroding the notion that there is a central culture we all must subscribe to."

But perhaps the most profound shift behind the dying breed of bookworms is that Americans have less time - and a shrinking tolerance for solitude. "There are so many ways not to feel alone, where the one way used to be moving into a novel's imaginative space," says Kathleen Fitzpatrick, an associate professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

As the wired, and wireless, world grows, the dominant culture is increasingly one of immediacy. "Why pick up Tolkien when you can spend three hours watching 'Lord of the Rings?' " asks Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research group in Washington. "Modern media is making us a Cliffs Notes nation."

In essential ways, experts say, reading simply feels less important. Early America saw literacy as a means to salvation: You learned to read in order to read the Bible, and that impetus was strong enough that New England joined Scotland as one of the first hubs of universal literacy. A few generations ago, "the whole idea of literacy was something parents thought to be terribly important because not everyone was literate," says Douglas Raybeck, an anthropologist at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "Now literacy is taken for granted."

That shift has been so profound, he continues, that technology now "meets people halfway," demanding less and less literacy as chores once completed through written correspondence can be done at the sound of a voice or the click of a mouse.

New ways of reading

To many, the alarm bells have a familiar ring: In every age, societies lament their own decline; there is always "a mythologization of a past in which everyone was well-read, everyone debated, everyone went to the coffee shops," says Professor Fitzpatrick. So the goal, in that sense, is to look for new habits that give people the same satisfaction and knowledge that bookishness once instilled. People still interact and read, after all - just not through books. Web logs ("blogs"), Fitzpatrick says, may function in some ways like the old bildungsroman - episodic narratives of life and coming of age.

Perhaps the answer to literary anxiety, then, is to relax the hold on traditional forms: "Reading has been worked into the fabric of our lives through the Internet and all kinds of other media," she says. "We are reading all the time, just not reading in ways that might appear visually literary."

To a surprising extent, people are writing more, too. The NEA study found Americans doing more creative writing than ever - 30 percent more than 10 years ago. More models exist of the personal narrative, as memoir mania cuts into the fiction market and as blogs chronicle strangers' days from breakfast to bed.

Even the most desperate tragedy has its heroes and its denouement: Dante's "dark woods" of declining literacy has its rays of light, too. Public libraries, for one thing, have undergone a renaissance. The number of items libraries circulate has gone from 1.5 billion in 1991 to 1.8 billion today, though, admittedly, that circulation includes more CDs, DVDs, and videos.

Bookstores are changing as well, with more guests and author readings. They have become the "locus of cultural and civic activity in communities," says Rusty Drugan of the New England Booksellers Association. And then, there's Harry Potter. The NEA study didn't measure children's reading, but Mr. Drugan calls the Potter books "a real cultural phenomenon."

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