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2004-07-15 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s

By Neil S. Friedman
Study Reveals Bleak Assessment Of Adult Reading Habits
This Week’s Attitude By Neil S. Friedman Study Reveals Bleak Assessment Of Adult Reading Habits

By Neil S. Friedman
Study Reveals Bleak Assessment Of Adult Reading Habits

Of the three educational Rs — reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic (respect should be added, but that’s really something youngsters should learn at home) — the former seems to garner the most attention — and rightly so. After all, if someone is illiterate they can’t possibly function adequately in modern society.

In New York City public schools, as well as lower education systems throughout the country, reading has been the focus for several decades when it was discovered reading scores were on the decline. In fact, putting the spotlight on reading, which has not shown as much improvement as anticipated, has probably led to a parallel decline in mathematics. Educational surveys and annual test scores in recent years demonstrate that on average, American children are deficient in mathematics compared to other industrialized nations.

Nevertheless, it’s reading that’s still the primary educational concern. Even if one never goes to high school or college, basic reading is required to read street signs, apply for a job or driver’s license, grocery shopping and just about any mundane activity you can think of.

Reading was briefly in the national spotlight when the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) issued a report last Thursday citing the number of non-reading adults decreased by 17 million over a ten-year span from 1992-2002. That’s an alarming seven percent of adults. And the age group that’s most affected are 18-24 year olds.

NEA Chairman Dana Goia, commented, "Now it’s not the case that Johnny Can’t Read, but Johnny Won’t Read," a reference to an old study about the illiteracy problem in the U.S.

According to the NEA, less than half of American adults read any type of literature — fiction (mysteries, romances, science fiction, thrillers, etc.), poems and plays. The rate for adults not reading any type of book is at an astonishing 57 percent. The survey, however, did not include magazines or newspapers. Nor did it take into account that some reading is done via the Internet or audio books, which is not reading, but listening.

It’s no surprise since many adults have transformed into immobile, part-time couch potatoes, preferring television eye-candy or perhaps personal computers to a book. Sadly, that lethargic habit rubs off on children, which, when you add fast food to the menu, has led to a larger in girth population.

The decline in reading is somewhat startling considering that Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and the Harry Potter book series have resulted in surging sales of books.

The NEA claims that reading has lots more competition nowadays from ever escalating cable outlets, the Internet and, of course, movies, which, ironically, lost audiences when television became the main source of American entertainment fifty years ago. (By the way, NEA is the same acronym for the National Education Association, which is the group you’d expect to conduct this type a study.)

The report also revealed that despite the decline in reading, book publishers are circulating far more titles — that obviously won’t be read. (Guess they’re not very discriminating or aware of the public’s reading decline.) Add to that the growing number of vanity or self-publishing companies and you’ve got a library full of books collecting dust.

On the other side of the coin, the NEA also claimed that while readers are dropping, the number of creative writers is on the rise. Hmmm, guess there’s going to be a lot of wannabe best-selling authors somewhat disappointed when their works end up in discount bins alongside perennial favorites such as Stephen King and Tom Clancy.

I’m proud to admit that reading’s been a passion of mine since I was a little boy. I got the habit from my parents, even though they were not avid readers. Yet, they read enough books to maintain and spur my interest, which was nurtured as I grew older.

I don’t currently read as much as I’d like to — I occasionally dawdle when it’s time to read, but I still manage to complete four to six books a year, plus daily newspapers and a weekly newsmagazine. Lately, I find myself indulging in more non-fiction than I had in recent years, whether about current or historical events and biographies.

The bleakest assessment of the NEA’s "Reading at Risk" report noted, "At the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in a half a century."

The group said it issued the report to create a conversation about a crisis situation, not to steer the nation’s culture.

Regardless of the NEA’s intent, it’s time to jolt adults back to reading, at the same pace the country has cut back on smoking since the former is as good for your health as much as the latter is harmful.

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