Wednesday, January 14, 2009

reading on the rise

David Ulin reflects on "literary eugenics" after the release of this week's NEA report that reading rates are up.

Then there are the demographics, which may say less about literary habits than about American life...Not surprisingly, reading rates go up according to level of education; 68.1% of college graduates identify as readers, compared with 39.1% of high school graduates and 18.5% of those who never went to high school. Consider ethnicity -- 55.7% of whites, 42.6% of African Americans and 31.9% of Latinos meet the NEA's "literary reader" criteria -- and you get a fuller picture, suggesting that, in the U.S., reading is a talisman of class.

This is important because "Reading on the Rise" correlates its findings to a broader context, framing reading in terms of moral value. "Reading is an important indicator of various positive individual and social behavior patterns," the report informs us, adding that "previous NEA research has shown that literary readers attend arts and sports events, play sports, do outdoor activities, exercise and volunteer at higher rates than nonreaders."

Setting aside the question of whether reading is, or even should be, good for you (check out Alan Bennett's short novel, "The Uncommon Reader," for a deft take on the other side of that debate: books as socially disruptive), these sorts of comparisons suggest a disturbing subtext, in which a certain kind of reader makes a better grade of citizen -- literary eugenics, in other words.

At Jacket Copy, Carolyn Kellogg considers the effect of the NEA's inclusion of online reading.

In his introduction to the executive summary, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia -- a poet -- sets new media up in opposition to reading. He writes:

A decline in both reading and reading ability was clearly documented in the first generation of teenagers and young adults raised in a society full of videogames, cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices.

I'm troubled by the idea that laptops are anti-literature. Clearly, much of the time people are staring at their laptops, they're reading. I thought perhaps the report would say that the next generation of young adults found their way to literature through all the reading they do with new media. Well, here's the next sentence:

Faced by a clear and undeniable problem, millions of parents, teachers, librarians, and civic leaders took action (inspired by thousands of journalists and scholars who publicized the issues at stake). Reading became a higher priority in families, schools, and communities. Thousands of programs, large and small, were created or significantly enhanced to address the challenge. The NEA’s Big Read program is only one conspicuous example of these myriad efforts.

When I reported on the Big Read for the paper, I found it to be a lovely program. But the connection between offline pro-reading programs and increased reading rates seems tenuous. What other factors were considered? Did libraries expand, increasing access to books? Did people have more leisure time from 2002 to 2008, more time to sit and read? And what about those pesky laptops, after all?

At the recent MLA convention, I spent most of my time with the "new media" folks. We attended panel after panel where digital media scholars and theorists presented on new ways to acquire, process, and enjoy texts of all kinds, increasing methods of access and dissemination. Invariably, a voice from the back of the room - why always the back of the room? - would ask the panelists about the fact the students aren't reading anymore. Time after time, it would be pointed out that all students do all day is read, just perhaps not from the prescribed bound books the questioners coded as approved "reading."

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