More American Adults Read Literature According to New
Literary reading on the rise for first time in history of Arts Endowment survey
January 12, 2009
Washington, D.C. — For the first time in more than 25 years, American adults are reading more literature, according to a new study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Reading on the Rise documents a definitive increase in rates and numbers of American adults who read literature, with the biggest increases among young adults, ages 18-24. This new growth reverses two decades of downward trends cited previously in NEA reports such as Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read.
“At a time of immense cultural pessimism, the NEA is pleased to announce some important good news. Literary reading has risen in the U.S. for the first time in a quarter century,” said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. “This dramatic turnaround shows that the many programs now focused on reading, including our own Big Read, are working. Cultural decline is not inevitable.”
Among the key findings:
Literary reading increases
- For the first time in the history of the survey – conducted five times since 1982 – the overall rate at which adults read literature (novels and short stories, plays, or poems) rose by seven percent.
- The absolute number of literary readers has grown significantly. There were 16.6 million more adult readers of literature in 2008. The growth in new readers reflects higher adult reading rates combined with overall population growth.
- The 2008 increases followed significant declines in reading rates for the two most recent ten-year survey periods (1982-1992 and 1992-2002).
Demographics of literature readers
- Young adults show the most rapid increases in literary reading. Since 2002, 18-24 year olds have seen the biggest increase (nine percent) in literary reading, and the most rapid rate of increase (21 percent). This jump reversed a 20 percent rate of decline in the 2002 survey, the steepest rate of decline since the NEA survey began.
- Since 2002, reading has increased at the sharpest rate (+20 percent) among Hispanic Americans, Reading rates have increased among African Americans by 15 percent, and among Whites at an eight percent rate of increase.
- For the first time in the survey’s history, literary reading has increased among both men and women. Literary reading rates have grown or held steady for adults of all education levels.
Trends in media and literary preferences
- Fiction (novels and short stories) accounts for the new growth in adult literary readers.
- Reading poetry and drama continues to decline, especially poetry-reading among women.
- Online readers also report reading books. Eighty-four percent of adults who read literature (fiction, poetry, or drama) on or downloaded from the Internet also read books, whether print or online.
- Nearly 15 percent of all U.S. adults read literature online in 2008.
A tale of two Americas
- The U.S. population now breaks into two almost equally sized groups – readers and non-readers.
- A slight majority of American adults now read literature (113 million) or books (119 million) in any format.
- Reading is an important indicator of positive individual and social behavior patterns. Previous NEA research has shown that literary readers volunteer, attend arts and sports events, do outdoor activities, and exercise at higher rates than non-readers.