We have all heard proclamations about the literacy crisis in America. In recent years, these proclamations have grown louder. District, state, and national literacy reports tell us that across the land readers are having more and more trouble understanding texts, writers are traumatized by communication challenges, and speakers have difficulty making themselves understood.
The 2004 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Survey Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, based on responses from 17,000 adults over 20 years of polling, has delivered some very troubling outcomes (Bradshaw and Nichols 2004). According to NEA Chair Dana Gioia, there has been a steady decline in the reading of literature over the last 20 years, more so among young readers than older members of society. The report also shows that literature reading is reflected in education; “only 14 percent of adults with a grade school education read literature in 2004. By contrast, more than five times as many respondents with a graduate school education—74 percent—read literary works.” People who read good books think differently from those who don't, and that thinking is reflected in communication skills. Gioia says, “print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability—and the many sorts of human continuity it allows—would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.” Quality of life and lifestyle are also affected by a person's literary reading habits. “Literary readers are much more likely to be involved in cultural, sports and volunteer activities than are non-readers. For example, literary readers are nearly three times as likely to attend a performing arts event, almost four times as likely to visit an art museum, more than two-and-a-half times as likely to do volunteer or charity work, and over one-and-a-half times as likely to attend or participate in sports activities. People who read more books tend to have the highest level of participation in other activities.” Aside from personal benefits, the reading of literature by its citizens has an impact on society in ways that cannot be seen at first blush. In the preface to the report, Gioia points out that, “Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not . . .