Changing Reading Forever, Again

lizabeth Minkel

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“Cultural decline is not inevitable,” said Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, upon the announcement that more Americans were reading books than in previous years. It was a small victory—“literary” reading rose seven per cent from 2002 to 2008, in part, Gioia suggested, because of programs like the N.E.A.’s Big Read—but it was a welcome one, because reading has been on the decline in our country for a very long time. The steady drop since the nineteen-fifties correlates directly with the rise of television and visual media, but much of the damage has been done in the past two decades, well after TV had solidified its place in Americans’ lives. Some of the recent bump must be attributed to the rise of e-readers, whose owners report an increase in their own reading habits thanks to the devices’ conveniences. But despite the small gains, a solid half of the country still rarely, if ever, picks up a book for pleasure. In the same press release, the N.E.A. said that “The U.S. population now breaks into two almost equally sized groups—readers and non-readers.”

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