The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) this fall will release another report lamenting the decline of literary reading. From the late seventeenth century through the early twentieth century, many cultural leaders would have applauded a decline in reading of popular novels. Now, however, such a decline is a cause for grave concern. Fiction has become a major public good.
Appreciating modern fiction requires considerable sophistication. The Executive Summary of the NEA’s 2004 report, Reading at Risk, declared:
Reading at Risk presents a distressing but objective overview of national trends. The accelerating declines in literary reading among all demographic groups of American adults indicate an imminent cultural crisis.
The NEA’s news release begin with this description:
Literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature…. The study also documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002….
The report’s Executive Summary included this finding:
4. Women read more literature than men do, but literary reading by both groups is declining at significant rates.
Under that finding was this data:
Thus less than half of American men have read literature for at least as far back as 1982. While the overall share of literary readers declined 10 percentage points from 1982 to 2002, the gender protrusion in the share of literary readers (the difference between women’s and men’s shares of literary readers) has been larger than 10 percentage points from 1982 to 2002. In 2002, the gender protrusion was 17.5 percentage points!
Reading at Risk emphasizes the tremendous public importance of literary reading. In the preface to the report, Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA, declares:
print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that makes complex communication possible. To lose such intellectual capability — and the many sorts of human continuity it allows — would constitute a vast impoverishment.
More than reading is at stake. As this report unambiguously demonstrates, readers play a more active and involved role in their communities. The decline in reading, therefore, parallels a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life. The long-term implications of this study not only affect literature but all the arts — as well as social activities such as volunteerism, philanthropy, and even political engagement.
The gender protrusion is literary reading is much larger than the decline in literary reading that the NEA and many concerned persons, including some who note various flaws in the NEA report other than the lack of interest in the impressive gender protrusion, have addressed. Why hasn’t the awesome gender protrusion attracted widespread public interest, or at least concern, or at least notice?
The NEA’s press release for Reading at Risk detumesces sex. The press release states:
Women read more literature than men do, but the survey indicates literary reading by both genders is declining. Only slightly more than one-third of adult males now read literature. Reading among women is also declining significantly, but at a slower rate.
The first independent clause of the first sentence has “women” as the subject and indicates that women lead men in the valued activity of concern. That sentence then has an attention-deflecting conjunction (“but” rather than “and”) linking to a second independent clause indicating a similarity between the sexes. The second sentence returns to the idea of the first independent clause of the first sentence. It presents a statistic about “adult males.” It does not, however, present the parallel statistic about “adult females.” The third sentence returns to women and slightly qualifies the second clause of the first sentence. This disjoint prose structure doesn’t convey what should be a major concern for those who truly believe that literary reading has great public importance: in 2002, 37.6% of men, in contrast to 55.1% of women, were literary readers.
Good literature is an antidote to conventional master narratives and narrow interests that obscure the continually new reality of the world. When it comes to men, failure of imagination may in fact indicate an imminent cultural crisis.