The question is what Johnny is reading…

The New York Times today has an article about the NEA study about declining readership. The article is called What Johnny Won’t Read” and it’s by Charles McGrath. A Google search turned up the whole NEA press release and study here; I don’t have time to read it now, but I can see how I might want to come back to it later.

Basically, the study says that fewer than 50% of American adults reads “literature,” the definition of which we will come to in a moment, and it pooh-poohs this as yet another sign of the decline of civilization. Interestingly, McGrath, who used to be the editor of the Book Review section of the NYT, raises a number of the same points I’d raise about this decline. To quote:

” The “Reading at Risk” survey defines literature as “any type of fiction, poetry and plays” that ”respondents felt should be included and not just what literary critics might consider literature.”

“Mysteries fit the bill, for example, and so do romances, fantasies, science fiction, thrillers, westerns and presumably pornography.

“It’s not clear whether this inclusiveness stems from political correctness – from a wish not to “privilege,” as they say in the seminar room, one genre over another – or merely from a reluctance to venture into the treacherous business of making value judgments. But the result is a definition of literature that appears both extremely elastic and, by eliminating nonfiction entirely, confoundingly narrow.”


“The notion that imaginative writing is somehow superior to factual writing is one that used to flourish in certain English departments, especially those in thrall to the so-called New Criticism, but these days it seems a dubious distinction. Good, artful writing, writing with voice and style, turns up in lots of places: in memoirs, in travel books, in books about history and science, and sometimes even in books about politics and policy.”


“The endowment’s larger point – that book reading in general is down, though not as much as what it considers purely literary reading – seems inarguable. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that reading itself is in quite the dire shape that the survey suggests. After all, it doesn’t consider magazines, it doesn’t consider newspapers and it doesn’t consider the Internet, except to imply that it steals time people used to spend with books. But when people surf the Web what they are doing, for the most part, is reading. To judge from the number of hits on sites like Google, they are gobbling up written information in ever-growing numbers.

“The survey operates on the unspoken premise that books are our culture’s premier system of information storage, and the preferred medium for imaginative storytelling. No one would want to challenge that, but a nagging, heretical question nevertheless suggests itself. If people suddenly stopped going to the movies, for example, would we conclude that there must be something wrong with the moviegoing public or might we wonder whether movies themselves had declined?”

I think those quotes pretty much speak for themselves. McGrath also notes that the report suggests that while there is a decreasing number of readers of literature, there is an increasing number of people who are trying to write it. He concludes:”We seem to be slowly turning into a nation of “creative writers,” more interested in what we have to say ourselves than in reading or thinking about what anyone else has to say.”

Sounds to me like we’re all going to turn into a bunch of blog writers…

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