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Is anybody out there? A closer look at the dire picture unearthed in the NEA's Reading at Risk study turns up some hopeful signs.

It ain't necessarily so" that memorable line from the opera Porgy and Bess should sum up what educators, booksellers and consumers are saying about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)'s 2004 study warning that Americans are reading less "literature" a trend that poses a threat to civil society.

In July 2004, the NEA's Reading at Risk report painted a gloomy picture. In nearly every demographic category, Americans read less literature in the last decade, reported the NEA. It also concluded that the decline in literary reading was a grave threat to cultural and civic participation. [See BIBR, EXECUTIVE EDITOR'S VIEW, September-October 2004.]

Reading at Risk measured changes in reading habits between 1992 and 2002, and 20 years ago in 1982. The survey sample comprises more than 17,000 individuals, and the NEA said its report was one of the most comprehensive polls of art and literature consumption ever found.

Does reading less literature--fiction, preferably read leisurely--mean Americans, and African Americans particularly, are reading less?

"Reading less literature is not necessarily an indicator that people are not reading," says Carla Hayden, executive director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Hayden, also immediate past president of the American Library Association, noted that public library use is at an all-time high--1.5 billion visits in 2004 up from nearly 1.2 billion visits in 2003.

Not So Fast

About a dozen educators, booksellers and consumers Black Issues Book Review interviewed were not so sure that literacy is doomed. Anecdotally, sources perceived gains or stable reading habits in segments of the black community, and others said that the rise of computers, the Internet and gadgetry did not necessarily pose a threat to books and reading.

[The NEA report suggested that gadgets were evil because as book consumption has remained flat, consumer use of electronic devices has increased five-fold.]

Here were some of the NEA findings: In 1992, 54 percent of the U.S. adult population read literature; and in 2002, the percentage declined to less than 47 percent. Meanwhile, book reading declined slightly from about 61 percent to less than 57 percent. Literature reading had a sharper decline from 54 percent of adults to about 47 percent.

Based on race, 37 percent of blacks read literature in 2002, reported the study, compared to nearly 46 percent in 1992 and about 42 percent in 1982. [For whites, their numbers were 51 percent in 2002, 58 percent in 1992 and nearly 60 percent in 1982.]

By gender, the literature gap is wide: at least 55 percent of females (59 million) read literature in late 2002, compared to nearly 38 percent of men (37 million).

For young adults ages 18 to 24, nearly 43 percent read literature, slightly less than about 47 percent of all adults. Among African Americans ages 18 to 24, 35 percent read literature, the report said.

Carol Dudley of the career development office at the Howard University School of Communications in Washington, D.C., says, "With the growth of black authors, I don't think that 'nobody's reading' is true for us.

"I see college students reading books for leisure and not textbooks," Dudley added. "Many of my colleagues are in book dubs, which I thought fell by the wayside.

"At airports and train stations," Dudley continued, "you see people buying books and reading books."

Jannette Dates, who teaches journalism at Howard, says, "From what I see, Americans are reading more. The NEA report doesn't sit right with me.

"Popular reading clubs are sparking more interest," she says. "I don't buy it that only certain segments of black America are reading."

The Electronic Competition

Yet the NEA Reading at Risk report, in its executive summary, asserts that "Literature reading is fading as a meaningful activity, especially among young people." Youth, according to the report, are more inclined to use computers, the Internet and other electronic gadgets for entertainment, rather than novels.

The NEA cited a 1999 report that stated the average American child lives in a household with about three televisions; two VCRs; three radios; two CD players; a video game player and a home computer.

James McQuivey, an assistant professor at Boston University and author of a study of children's reading habits, says the popularity of electronic games does not necessarily mean that they were reading less. "We wanted to know what was in the mix for children's lives," he says. "We came up with a strange explanation, 'Kids who do more, do more. A super-media generation is coming up that is reading and watching TV is the real secret.'

"This doesn't mean that everyone's reading," says McQuivey. "And the less money in the household, the less people how are reading." Unfortunately, Boston University had a very small percentage of black children--3 percent--in their sample.

"The challenge," says Hayden, "is addressing the media [not digital] divide: young people who don't have access or opportunities to be read to or use the Internet."

In its conclusion, Reading at Risk said, "The accelerating declines in literary reading among all demographic groups of American adults indicate an imminent cultural crisis. The trends among younger adults warrant special concern, suggesting that--unless some effective solution is found--literary culture, and literacy in general will virtually disappear in a half century."

There is little dispute that Americans are reading less of a specific type of work, fictional ones. The NEA report called upon "public agencies, cultural organizations, the press, and educators to take stock of the sliding literary condition of our country," and the report recommended "a nationwide renaissance of literary reading."

Wayne Dawkins is the author of Black Journalists: The NABJ Story (August Press, October 1992).
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Title Annotation:between the lines: the inside scoop on what's happening in the publishing industry; National Endowment for the Arts
Author:Dawkins, Wayne
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
Words:941
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Next Article:Signings & sightings.
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