WASHINGTON Despite rising education levels, a decade of "Harry Potter" and the near-ubiquity of big chain bookstores, Americans of every age are reading less and less for pleasure these days, according to an analysis being released Monday by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The decline, the study warned, could have grim consequences as people tune out books, tune in popular culture and become less socially and civically engaged.
"We've got a public culture which is almost entirely commercial and novelty-driven," said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. "I think it's letting the nation down."
The study gathers decades of data on Americans' reading habits, and finds that, at every age group, we're reading less.
Most of the data have appeared in private, government and university surveys, but Monday's report is the first to combine them into a single portrait. It suggests that the demands of school, work and family and the ascendancy of other forms of entertainment have marginalized recreational reading for millions of Americans.
Among the findings:
Only 38 percent of adults in 2006 said they had spent time reading a book for pleasure the previous day.
65 percent of college freshmen in 2005 said they read little or nothing for pleasure.
30 percent of 13-year-olds in 2004 said they read for fun "almost every day," down from 35 percent in 1984.
Gioia, a poet, called the decline "probably the single most important social issue in the United States today."
The findings, he said, should be a wake-up call to educators to change the way they teach literature at every level.
"There used to be the assumption that if someone went to college, they would become a lifelong reader and the numbers bore it out. What we're seeing right now is that we're no longer producing readers. We're producing B.A.s and M.A.s and Ph.Ds."
Gioia also wants mainstream media to wake up to how they can promote good books in unlikely ways he noted that when a character in the 1994 film "Four Weddings and a Funeral" recited a few lines of W.H. Auden's poem "Funeral Blues," the poet briefly became a best seller.
"I guarantee that if we could expand the coverage in the media, you'd immediately see people responding," he said. "People are looking for things to do that aren't dumb. I don't think that Americans are dumber than before, but I do believe our public culture is."
One city, one book
Over the past decade, a handful of cities have launched programs that encourage citizens to read and discuss a single book over several weeks.
Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts piloted a nationwide version of the idea, dubbed The Big Read. The NEA invited 10 communities to read one of four books:
• F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."
• Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."
• Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
• Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The program went nationwide this year, and the NEA said 117 communities now are taking part.