Read This!

If you’ve encountered the grim reports issued by the National Endowment for the Arts on reading habits of Americans, especially teens, you might wonder how the next generation will ever compete in the knowledge economy. While the NEA finds the lack of interest in reading among teens “alarming,” I’d like to suggest what’s alarming to me is how out of step the NEA is.

If the NEA report is valid, that “both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined,” in America, then how do we explain the hours of reading and writing students are doing online, generating the equivalent of pages of text via Facebook and blogs? Why are record numbers of youth participating in poetry slams, an activity the NEA even sponsors? Hollywood, always a savvy sniffer of trends, is more frequently producing films based on books because, as an executive at New Line Cinema explains it to me, it helps them “Target the teens who are reading.” Finally, how does a thoughtful person account for the astonishing success of the Harry Potter franchise if young people are not interested in reading?

Here’s my take: the NEA is practicing a policy manuever that’s as old as the hills. The strategy is to alarm the public into thinking there is a crisis. Rally the Congressional aides and deliver bone-chilling statistics about the decline of American competitiveness, in this case brought about by book-lethargy. Then, offer up the solution along with the price tag. If you’ve been convincing enough you get a budget increase.

The rest of the marketplace is sending a contradictory message. Google is spending mightily to engorge volumes from the nation’s most well-stocked libraries. Amazon has unveiled it’s new e-book reading device Kindle. In 2006, 65.5 percent of the 43 million households surveyed ranked “avid reading” the #1 in-home leisure activity (Standard Rate and Data Service Lifestyle Market Analyst). I welcomed The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent article How Reading Is Being Reimagined,” by Matthew Kirschenbaum, who paints a more balanced picture. Presumably, he has no axe to grind or budget to expand.

While I’d applaud a better-funded NEA, I think this style of policy making is past due.

Hat tip to George Needham for the Kirschenbaum piece.