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  • Read all about it: Reading on the rise as economy falters

    With the economy down, Americans are reading again. According to a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts, more than half of American adults report reading a novel, poem or play in the past 12 months. It looks like reading may be an indicator of hard times.

    The NEA, whose budget was in decline even before the economy went South, is celebrating the first increase in "literary reading" in a quarter of a century, an exciting reversal in the long downturn in American literacy.

    According to the latest figures from the Census Bureau, all of us, whites, blacks, Hispanics, men, women, and children, are reading more novels, and young adults, ages 18-24, have shown the biggest increase of all, going from a 20% decline in 2002 to a 21% gain in 2008.

    News about reading tends not to be up-beat. A 1994 report claimed that almost half of American adults were functionally illiterate. Things hadn't changed much by 2004, when the NEA published its report "Reading at Risk," to announce an alarming decline in the reading of literature by Americans. And only a year ago a poll revealed that a mere one in four adults hadn't read any sort of book at all in the past year.

    But now, after heroic efforts by teachers, librarians, and the NEA, with an assist from the subprime mortgage meltdown, the only people who no longer read may be George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber.

    George Bush holds a book upside down in a photo op 

    George W. Bush, back when he was president, telling a student that reading upside down made his polling numbers seem higher.

    Now that federal interest rates have been cut to almost zero, reading interest is on the rise, and although credit is still frozen, books are circulating once again. Since 2004, over 16 million adults have begun reading books, and as of 2008, 50.2% of all Americans are reading at least a book a year. Of course in 1982, that figure was 56.9%, representing an overall decline in book reading over the past quarter century, with only a slight uptick in the past six years.

    Nonetheless, the NEA's Dana Gioia is thrilled that today's Index of Leading Literary Indicators looks a lot healthier than the Dow:

    Graph of decline and rise of reading since 1982

    The NEA's Index of Leading Literary Indicators (ILLA, above) is bullish on literature, while the Dow during the same period (below) heads south after years of moving upwards. 

    Graph of Dow Jones Index since 1982

    Comparing the financials with reading trends suggests that in lean times, people turn to novels for solace.

    But forecasters worry that the literacy bubble may burst just as the housing bubble did. The indicators are all there: independent bookstores are in free fall; Borders, with shares trading well under a dollar, is on the brink of bankruptcy; and even Amazon has to stay afloat by peddling DVDs, electronic equipment, and high-fat snacks alongside the books that made the company a household name.

    The uptrending NEA stats are problematic too: novel-reading may be up, but poems and plays continue to "test the bottom," as the economists put it, reaching historic lows in every quarter since 1982. Not only that, but 54% of Americans reported reading a book last year not required for work or school (any book at all, not just a literary one), a figure that actually represents a decline of 2 percentage points in the past four years. Finally, even many English majors, who are supposed to know this stuff, aren't altogether clear on the difference between fiction and nonfiction, so the seemingly-healthy subcategory of novel-reading may not be going up after all.

    In the end, the NEA's statistics, whether interpreted optimistically or pessimistically, don't give a true picture of how we read. Today's readers still prefer their novels and nonfiction in conventional book format, and regardless of sales, the printed book isn't an endangered technology, at least not yet.

    But whether or not the recent increase in the consumption of conventional texts is a function of the economic recession, it's clear that for most of us, online work, school, and leisure reading is surely going through the roof, and in some distant Stark Trek future, when all reading matter is digitized, the book may seem as curious and rare an object as the scroll has become in the age of print.

    Star Trek's Capt. Picard reads on a digital tablet 

    Whether or not Star Trek represents the future of reading, we're doing more and more of our work, school, and leisure reading on-screen (above: Capt. Picard reads a "book"). In the future, books may have a much more specialized function, much like the role of scrolls in the post-Gutenberg universe (below: copying torah). 

    Copy a torah scroll 

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