The Real Problem With the Decline in Literary Reading

The Real Problem With the Decline in Literary Reading

The headline is stark: Americans are increasingly unlikely to read literature. So found the National Endowment for the Arts in its recently released Annual Arts Basic Survey (AABS). Measuring the ways adult Americans interact with and engage in the arts – from reading a book to playing an instrument to attending a performance – this year’s survey shows that only 43% of Americans read “novels, short stories, or plays not required for work or school.” Although the NEA’s research excludes narrative non-fiction and newer storytelling genres like blog posts and podcasts, the research suggests that reading rigorous literature may shrink away to nothing, with fewer and fewer Americans taking the time to explore the magic of literary worlds.

But the NEA’s numbers are particularly striking as they break down along gender, race and educational lines. Women constitute nearly 60% of literary readers. People who identify as White are also more likely to read literature: 50% of them have engaged in literary reading, compared to only 28.7% of those who identify as Black and even fewer of those who identify as Hispanic. And perhaps most striking: whereas 68.1% and 58.9% of people who have graduate or bachelor’s degrees, respectively, read literature last year, only 30.1% of high school graduates did. Those who have only some high school are even less likely to pick up a novel, with a scant 20.8% engaging in literary reading.

Francisco Goya, Men Reading

Francisco Goya, Men Reading, 1823, Museo del Prado, Madrid, [Public Domain] via

These statistics tell an unhappy story about people’s ability to access literature in the United States, and more importantly, to access education more broadly. Science has demonstrated the many benefits literary reading offers to those who engage in it, among them less stress, improved empathy and social skills and decreased racial bias. People who read actually live longer.  But as Alia Wong recently wrote in The Atlantic, book deserts are prevalent in low-income urban areas, causing real problems for the families who live in them – most of whom are minorities without college degrees. Access to literature, Wong makes clear, is not always a choice.

For those of us at Books@Work, the NEA survey results are also a timely reminder of our fundamental mission – to use literature to bridge the educational divides that impede access and encourage people to build these critical interpersonal and social skills. In fact, despite our name, we are not working to build a higher percentage of literary readers in the world. We are working for the outcomes and possibilities that reading and discussing together provide.

We know from our participants – in the workplace and in the community – that a good novel has a unique ability to open up conversation and bring us closer to one another, to enable us to share topics that are otherwise difficult to discuss. We work hard to include individuals who may not think of themselves as readers and who may not have college degrees, but whose life experience provides deep wisdom to interpret literature in powerful and thoughtful ways. We work to help them use these insights to build bridges with others, to share their own stories and enrich them with the shared language that literature so lyrically provides. And we work to assure them access to the benefits reading and higher education offer, to encourage them to engage their colleagues, their spouses and their children to explore new possibilities together. Finally, we work to create sustaining interpersonal connections, to use literature as a platform to explore the things we have in common, rather than focusing on the issues that divide us.

Advocates for the arts may well cry out at the decline in literary reading among Americans as a harbinger of the death of human culture. But for us, the demographic divisions this survey exposes are of greater concern, as they represent an educational and economic divide that widens year after year. This evidence exhorts us to redouble our efforts, at work and in the community, to create opportunities for civic dialogue, for respectful disagreement and, as one of our partners so aptly describes, for “discussing the undiscussables.”

As we enter the final quarter of a busy and productive year, we are grateful for the partners across the country and in a wide variety of contexts who have joined to us. Together, we ensure that more people have access to the powerful conversations that good books occasion and the enhanced benefits literature offers us all when we include a diverse array of readers in the conversation.

Image: Henri Matisse, Woman Reading in a Garden, 1901-1903, [Public Domain] via

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Learn More About Our Programs, or Read More on The Notebook:

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.