On the Importance of Reading

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June 2006

DANA GIOIA Chair, National Endowment for the Arts

On the Importance of Reading
Gioia warns that as increasing numbers of Americans put down their books, they also invest less in the nation’s civic and cultural life. In a program moderated by writer Jewelle Gomez, Gioia calls for a revival in reading, beginning in the schools. Monday April 10, 2006


very 10 years the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) does a survey among American households. It’s the largest of its kind in the world. We take 17,000 households, which the U.S. Census Bureau matches to reflect the total American population as of the previous year’s census. We interview those people in their homes – a very extensive interview about their participation in arts and civics activities – and we follow up with other phone interviews. This allows us to judge in an objective way (the error rate is about two-tenths of 1 percent – about 20 times the size of your normal national poll) how the arts are doing. We did this a few years ago. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find what we found. To summarize, reading has declined among every group of adult Americans:

book, magazine, newspaper or online. If you carry a poem in your wallet and you look at it once a year, we count you. If you have just finished Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks in German for the third time, or you’ve read one page of a Harlequin Romance and given up because it’s too hard, we count you as equals. We are very egalitarian! What you see for the first time in American history is that less than half of the U.S. adult American population is reading literature. I’m going to talk about what the causes of the problem are, and then I’ll talk about the consequences and the solutions. To go into the data a little big further, we see that we’re producing the first generation of educated people, in some cases college graduates, who no longer become lifelong readers. This is disturbing for reasons above and “Reading has declined among every group of adult Americans: every beyond those that a poet might be expected to age group, educational group, income group, region and race.” bring to the podium. every age group, educational group, income group, Literature awakens, enlarges, enhances and refines our region and race – although Asian reading is flat (the humanity in a way that almost nothing else can. single number of several thousand in this report that Franz Kafka once said that the book is the axe by is actually directionally positive). In some case the which we break open the frozen seas within us. That metaphor is very true. We tend, by our very nature, declines have been precipitous. This has been going on for 20 years, but the trends are getting worse, to be encased in our own egos. What literature does and the worst declines are among younger American – nowhere more powerfully than in fiction (the novel and the short story) – is put us in the inner lives of adults. In the last 20 years, younger American adults have gone from being the people in our society who other people in the dailyness of their psychological, social, economic and imaginative existence. This read the most to the people who read the least. Reading proficiency has fallen among all makes us feel, more intensely probably than anything Americans, and it has fallen the worst among adults else, the reality of other points of view, of other lives. That is obviously in jeopardy if we now have aged 18 to 24, 25 to 34. It has fallen the worst among men, and, indeed, if you look at our study and other a society in which the majority of adults are no longer reading. But there are other things that we studies, only about one-third of adult males are doing what we call “literary reading.” Know that literary can actually measure. Something seems to happen reading sounds much better than it is. We define with readers that does not happen with non-readers. I cannot scientifically prove that it’s causal, but I can...
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