IN MID-OCTOBER, the Nobel Committee for Literature awarded the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The announcement came shortly after the most recent Annual Arts Basic Survey (AABS) by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released data that found adults in the United States read less literature for pleasure. The survey said that adult Americans who report reading literature has fallen to 43.1 percent in 2015. The NEA defines literature as poetry, plays, short stories, and novels. Reading can be text or graphics (graphic novels), online or in print.
The results vary by state. According to the survey, Mississippi had the lowest percentage of adults who reported reading literature, at 21.7 percent, and Vermont had the highest percentage, at 62.8 percent. Tennessee had the lowest percentage of adults who reported consuming art via electronic media at 44.8 percent, which includes watching, listening to, and/or downloading programs or information about books or writers, short stories, or poetry read out loud, and Washington had the highest percentage, at 80.4 percent.
The NEA conducts several surveys in this area, including the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). According to Sunil Iyengar, research and analysis director at the NEA, the first AABS survey was in 2013, with about 23,000 responses from American adults. The survey found that book reading has remained relatively stable, though with a steep decline in poetry reading. Iyengar also said that forms of poetry, such as spoken word performances, may not be captured by the reading question, “Did you read a poem in the last year or did you read a work of poetry in the last year?” He explained that the survey questions had to be kept short and simple in order to encourage people to finish answering.
The NEA isn’t the only organization to find a relative decline in reading. Publishers Weekly recently reported on a Pew Research Center Report that found “that 73 percent of Americans have read a book in the last year, largely unchanged from 2012 levels (although lower than the 79 percent recorded in 2011, when Pew began tracking reading habits).” That data came from 1,520 U.S. adults who responded between March and April 2016. To account for this decline, Iyengar cited the “many competing options for people’s leisure time,” but added, “We can’t say definitively what the reason is.”
Though there is no reliable data on why a decline in reading literature is taking place, Tom Jacobs from Pacific Standard offers one theory: “the rise of movies and other visual content on demand — which started in the 1980s with the VCR — is one likely culprit. After all, why read a novel when you have Netflix?” It’s true that books increasingly have to compete for people’s attention with other forms of entertainment, whether that be movies, videos, games, or something else. According to one recent assessment, Netflix users watched 42.5 billion hours of streaming content last year. Meanwhile, YouTube has more than one billion users, and according to the site, “the average viewing session is now more than 40 minutes.” There are also platforms like Steam, which offers a catalog of games to play on your computer. Steam shares consistently updated information about its users and games, as well as download stats. On October 30 alone, the site reached a peak of 13,081,501 users.
It’s easy to assume that people are reading less because of the myriad options they have to choose from. But is that really the case? What if we redefined what it means to read, as well as what constitutes literature?
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