An unusually thorough new survey by the US Census Bureau suggests that fewer than half of all Americans read novels, short stories, plays, or poetry, and only 56 percent read books of any kind. NEA chairman Dana Gioia calls the results "deeply alarming," and notes the high correlation of literacy to civic involvement, charity work, and good dental hygiene. New York Times reporter Bruce Weber (isn't he some kind of randy photographer?) speculates, predictably but no doubt accurately, that the result "does seem likely to fuel debate over issues like the teaching and encouragement of reading in schools, the financing of literacy programs and the prevalence in American life of television and the other electronic media."
Though the methodology seems sound, I wonder about these "Have you done X in the past 12 months?"-style questions. I've probably read more novels than Don Quixote himself, but I'd say there have been years when I haven't read any. Thinking back on the past year, I'd say I've only read four, which would probably put me toward the caboose in fiction reading, and doesn't accurately reflect my overall reading habits. You may counter that literacy is such a point of pride that people would be more likely to overestimate their own reading habits. But many Americans regard reading fiction as a waste of time (and they're probably right), and if anything would underestimate the amount of fiction-reading they do.
However, I'm willing to accept the accuracy of the survey, and even agree that there are real benefits to regular book-reading habits. But before this debate about "teaching and encouraging reading" heats up, I have to ask: Is there any message more widely distributed in America than the one about the importance of reading? Every school is festooned with posters of celebrities dipping into some book or other, every other minute of kids' television offers up some pious message about how great books are, every President and every First Lady travels the land reading in schools. (Though I think the controversy over President Bush and the seven minutes is idiotic, I'm disappointed one of his defenders hasn't pointed out that encouraging children to read is attending to important public business.) The message that Reading Is Fundamental has been received, over and over again. Please, Mr. Gioia, spend my money on something else.
Besides, as the artist currently known as Nick Gillespie pointed out way back when, even when you really do get people reading, somebody will still find room to complain.