I’ve spent much of the past 25 years fighting the downward trend in literacy, first as an adult literacy tutor, then as the coordinator of summer library writing projects for students in California, New Mexico and Kentucky. Most recently, I’ve been appointed to the Board of Directors of the Capitol City Young Writers, a non-profit organization founded by literary agent Verna Dreisbach that focuses on developing higher literacy through the practice of writing—and helping talented young authors get published.
So, after fighting this difficult fight in various ways, imagine my joy when the National Endowment of the Arts issued a report last week stating that, for the first time in a quarter-century, adult fiction reading is on the rise. Perhaps it is because of the economy; more people are staying home and reading for entertainment. Perhaps it is because of, well, the economy; times are so tough that people are escaping through the favorite portal of their younger years – good stories. Perhaps it is because baby boomers are waxing nostalgic over their favorite authors, or younger adults are growing burned out from a life defined by technology and looking for something deep and real. What’s more essential and real than a novel in which the author touches deeply into the human condition?
According to the NEA report, from 1992 to 2002, the percentage of adult literary readers in the U.S. dropped precipitously, from 54% to 46.7%. In the early 1970s, at the height of young intellectualism in America, the rate was more than 60%. However, from 2002 to 2008, the rate rose to 50.2% — the first time since 1983 that it had climbed.
What does this mean? More people are reading. Most importantly, more adults are reading. This creates a more intelligent and reasoned society, one that seeks more information from deep sources (ostensibly, book authors), but also one that asks smarter questions and uses intelligent actions to solve problems. Which will be a major objective for years to come in all aspects of our society and lives.
When adults reconnect with the joy and educational value of reading, they also pass it to their children and grandchildren. Nights numbing out in front of the TV start to be replaced by family reading. Their children and grandchildren grow up with a love for words and books. When that happens, the youth literacy rate rises—and the school dropout rate falls.
Finally, the NEA report is great news for working writers. With a President coming into office who is committed to learning and education, I see an upsurge in reading interest. Because of the aforementioned technology, we can now read in several ways—through books, e-books, readers like Amazon.com’s Kindle, online in chapter excerpts, and more.
If this trend continues, we may well emerge from the recession with a new reading boom in the midst — the greatest news of all.
To order Bob Yehling’s books:
Writes of Life: Using Personal Experiences in Everything You Write
The River-Fed Stone: Poetry & Essays
Coyotes in Broad Daylight: Poetry & Essays
Shades of Green: Collected Poetry & Essays
Freedom of Vision: Writing From Within Prison Walls (co-edited with Stephen B. Gladish)
To pre-order Bob Yehling’s forthcoming book:
The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life