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A study in contrasts.

This summer, we met our kind of readers and motivated book buyers in droves: We met them in the heady, multicultural parade of people who prepaid $38 to get a personally signed copy of My Life when former President Clinton visited Harlem's Hue-Man Bookstore on June 22. A month later, we met throngs of black culture aficionados who attended the Harlem Book Fair. Sucia crowds seemed to indicate endless blue skies ahead for publishing and for reading. Then we learned of a disturbing new report that put the American reader on the rare-and-endangered species list.

The National Endowment for the Arts released a report on July 9 that noted reading for pleasure is not a leisure activity of choice for most Americans: "Reading is in decline among all groups, in every region, at every educational level and within every clinic group," said Dana Gioia, chairman of the endowment.

The "Reading at Risk" report was based on a survey conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002. The study sampled more than 17,000 people, comparing 2002 data to results in 1982 and 1992. People were asked whether they had read any book in the past year and whether they had read any "literature" (defined as novels, short stories, poems or plays not required for school or work) in that period. Nonfiction and electronic reading did not count.

A mere 56.6 percent of adults in the United States had read any book at all. That was down fro 60.9 percent a decade earlier. In 2002, 46.7 percent had mad literature, compared to 54 percent in 1992. "At the current rate of loss," the endowment study says, "literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century."

Only 37.1 of African Americans had read literature (compared to 51.4 of whites), down from 42.3 percent for blacks in 1982. (Only 26.5 percent of Hispanics read literature in 2002.) Most revealing was that the sharpest declines in the wider population were among young adults, who 20 years ago were the most likely to read literature. Interestingly enough, however, young black adults, ages 25 to 34 and from 35 to 44, were more likely to read literature than African Americans of other ages, a fact attributed to higher education levels in those peer groups.

As a people who fought hard for the right to learn to read and for the right to formal education on equal footing with all other citizens, this documented disinclination to read should alarm us. But then think about these findings in the context of the feature articles in this edition on the explosion in hip-hop or urban literature and the boom in urban erotica. These greater numbers of black books fit with one of the "Reading at Risk" survey's less-heralded findings: that the number of people engaged in creative writing has grown significantly since 1982, and that African Americans were engaged in this as much as others.

I do not always know what to make of urban lit or erotica, but I do know that young adults are eagerly buying and reading these books. Isn't it better that our young people are at least reading something? Or are they, as many in our community seem to think, squandering their hard-earned literacy? My hope is that this unconventional point of entry into the world of books will lead young readers to more substantial literary choices in the future and a lifetime of enjoyment and enrichment.
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Title Annotation:executive editor's view
Author:Dodson, Angela P.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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