Reading at Risk

Dr. Cynthia Malone


Reading at Risk, the NEA's report on the decline of reading in the United States, appeared in July, 2002.  Although the report measures the rate of general reading, it focuses primarily on the reading of literature.  In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Americans Found to Read Less Literature than Ever," Scott McLemee notes that the report shows the decline in reading of literature to be even more precipitous than the decline in general book-reading:

In 1992, for example, 60.9 percent of those surveyed indicated that they had read a book of some sort during the previous year.  By 2002 that figure had shrunk to 56.6 percent, a decline of 7 percent.

When asked about literature in particular, the change was even more marked.  In 1992, 54 percent of respondents indicated that they had read a literary work of some kind.  That proportion fell to 46.7 percent in 2002, a decrease of 14 percent.  (McLemee)

Young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 showed the most dramatic decline in reading literature: "for the 18-to-24 cohort," McLemee points out, the rate of decline is "28 percent."

Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are, of course, precisely the "cohort" of the population most likely to be taking college courses.  Of course, higher education levels correlate with higher rates of reading literature.  Still, the stark contrasts between rates of reading literature among young adults in 1992 and 2002 gives pause. 

English Department faculty members, alums, majors, and minors might agree with NEA Chair Dana Gioia that the decline in reading represents a "national crisis" because "[r]eading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life"         (  The report deepens the sense of crisis, however, by showing the connection between reading literature and participation in volunteer work, attending theater, concerts, or museums, and involvement in sports or attending sports events.

As Scott McLemee notes, Reading at Risk paints a gloomy picture of literary reading in the United States (and, by extension, a gloomy forecast for arts and volunteer organizations), but the report does not outline policy recommendations.  Gioia has judged that "the report can have its best effect by provoking a national debate" on its findings (McLemee).  Here at St. Ben's and St. John's, we need to begin taking part in that national debate. 

Works Cited

"Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline, According to National Endowment for the Arts Survey: Fewer Than Half of American Adults Now Read Literature."  National Endowment for the Arts News Room.  8 July 2004.  27 September 2004.  <>.

McLemee, Scott.  "Americans Found to Read Less Than Ever."  The Chronicle of Higher Education 16 July 2000.  27 September 2004.  <>.