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Survey finds drop in reading rates

Arts group reports 10% fewer Americans read for fun in 2002

Despite monster bestsellers like Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" and Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," it appears that the reading of literature is declining in America.

That is the thrust of a grim report issued yesterday by the National Endowment for the Arts. Titled "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," the NEA study reports marked declines in the reading of fiction, plays, and poetry since 1982, with a steeper decline since 1992.

"Unless some effective solution is found, literary culture, and literacy in general, will continue to worsen," the report said. "Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century." The report is based on a US Census Bureau study that polled more than 17,000 adults.

The report found a 10 percent overall drop in literary reading -- from 56.9 percent to 46.7 percent of Americans -- since 1982. What that means is that fewer than half of Americans had read a novel, short story, play, or poem in the preceding year.

Declines spanned all age, gender, racial, and ethnic categories, but the biggest drop was among 18-to-34-year-olds, whose readership declined 28 percent, from 59.8 percent reading literature in 1982 to 42.8 percent in 2002. People with higher education levels read more, but even among college graduates, literary reading declined from 82.1 percent to 66.7 percent.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia attributed much of the drop to the Internet and other forms of electronic entertainment. "People have become passive consumers of entertainment," Gioia said by phone. "We think of reading as passive because people do it sitting down, but it requires sustained attention. The ability to hold complicated situations in your mind is a human skill that reading develops, that has individual and social importance."

Despite its dire tone, the report found that while literary reading has fallen as a percentage of the total population -- which has grown by 40 million since 1982 -- the total number of literary readers has held steady at 96 million. It also found the percentage of annual leisure income spent on books has remained almost unchanged. "Novel and short stories have an audience (93 million) that is larger than almost any other cultural or leisure pursuit," the report said.

It is also not clear that the statistics represent a steady decline. The Census Bureau provided snapshots of 1982, 1992, and 2002, and the report acknowledged that "no information is available for [the intervening] years, and it is possible that the 2002 drop is a short, one-year change."

Several book professionals yesterday cited reading in childhood as a necessary prelude to reading for pleasure in adulthood. "The greatest concern is the loss of young readers," said Thomas Hallock, associate publisher of Boston-based Beacon Press. "It may be that with so much emphasis on standardized testing, we are forgetting to introduce our children to the joys of reading."

Some in the book world were less gloomy.

"I'm not so much alarmed as encouraged that there are 96 million people who read literature," said Harold Augenbraum, the executive director-designate of the National Book Foundation. "Yes, there's a decline, but that's a pretty good base from which to bring it back."

"Alarmism is not a new trend in publishing," said Boston-based literary agent Wendy J. Strothman, who has been senior vice president of Houghton Mifflin Co. and director of the Beacon Press. "I do worry about this, but if publishers and authors put out substantial books, they won't have to worry. If there's any message, it would be don't dumb down what you publish -- publish the good stuff."

Bernard Margolis, president of the Boston Public Library, is also less worried, than the authors of the report, though he acknowledges there is real concern about literacy among children. As for adults, he said, "I think reading is alive and well. More people come to the library than go to games of all the sports teams -- Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, Patriots, you name it -- combined. That's not too shabby."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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