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Can you read me?

They're at it again--the doom-criers who assert that reading is disappearing--or at least the right kind of reading. Digital content? Sorry; that's not really reading.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) produced "Reading at Risk," a report asserting that reading was declining. The report stated reading itself was at risk and projected that "literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century."

Although that report resulted in lots of alarmed editorials, a number of observers read the report carefully, did independent analysis of the source material, and came to different conclusions. I wrote about it in the August 2004 Cites & Insights, concluding: "The sky has not fallen. I sincerely doubt that America will be a nation of aliterates in 50 years."

Apparently, NEA was disappointed by doubts cast on the report--so it went back, gathered more "evidence," and, in November 2007, released "To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence." This report once again claims, "There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans." NEA's chair now says flatly, "It is no longer reasonable to debate whether the problem exists." Nonsense.

If anything, the 2007 report weakens the 2004 report because it's more obvious that NEA is playing games with definitions, data, and reporting. One commenter says NEA cooked the data, and that may not be too harsh.

"Reading" to the NEA isn't just taking in a stream of words visually with the expectation of drawing meaning from them. It is leisure reading (no credit for assigned or work-related reading such as reading the report itself), book reading (it is clear NEA doesn't regard on-screen reading as real reading), and literary reading (nonfiction need not apply).

The report also cherry-picks data and uses graphical and statistical tricks. Consider a graph showing "reading proficiency" in 17-year-olds from 1984 to 2004, based on NCES data. There's a dramatic drop from 1999 to 2004, after a level period following another drop from 1992 to 1994. If you project the 1999-2004 change for another few years, reading proficiency seems to drop off the chart altogether.

However, as analyzed by Nancy Kaplan (writing at if:book on Nov. 30, 2007), there are problems. First, NEA truncated the data set, failing to include the years from 1971 to 1984. Why? Possibly because the scores for 1971 and 1980 are the same as the score for 2004: There simply is no long-term trend. Second, the graph uses the same horizontal interval for 1999-2004 as it does for each of three 2-year periods (and one 3-year period) before that. Normalize the distances and you see a much slower "decline" from the 1990 peak.

The third form of "chartjunk" here has become commonplace: Exaggerating the change by using a nonzero axis. You see an apparent huge decline between 1999 and 2004--but if the chart began at zero, the decline would be nearly invisible: 1.1% over 4 years. (The real change over the course of the study is zero percent over 24 years.)

NEA claims book sales declined by 100 million books between 2000 and 2006--that is, from 1.6 billion books in 2000 to 1.5 billion in 2006. I've seen other government figures showing 2.36 billion books sold in the U.S. in 2001--and 3.08 billion in 2006. Curious results indeed for a nation forgetting how to read.

Since we're talking about reading, one might ask about changes in library circulation. NEA ignores such circulation, saying there aren't accurate figures as to how much circulation actually comprises books. That's a neat way to avoid the reality: Public library circulation increased at least three times as much from 2000 to 2004 as the supposed drop in book sales from 2000 to 2006 (and that number keeps going up). Even if half the additional circulations are nonbooks, there is no factual basis for the claim that people are reading, or at least acquiring, fewer books.

In 1955, a Gallup poll showed that 17% of adult Americans read books. In 2002, NEA's determined crisis-mongering couldn't get that figure down below 57%. Even assuming NEA's narrow definition of literary reading and ignoring all but books, we get 47%--a "drop" to somewhat less than three times the percentage of adults who read books at all 47 years earlier. If we're becoming aliterate, we're doing so in a most unusual manner.

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Title Annotation:disContent
Author:Crawford, Walt
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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