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After Liz's comments to my post on the NEA report I went and downloaded all 99 very boring pages and read it. There were a couple of things that had bothered me from the beginning - namely how big the pool was that the NEA used to determine that millions of Americans were not reading. What I found is that the basic issue of lowered reading among adults comes from an earlier NEA study, the 2002 Study of Public Participation in the Arts. This study, which is done annually, measures attendance at several events - such as jazz, classical music, ballet, opera, etc. The events are predetermined and they must be of a certain type. The total number of adults who participated in the study was 17, 135 - from that number the NEA then extrapolates the data to cover millions of Americans. This is the study that gets the NEA in a bit of trouble as it allows only literary reading to count - and one look at the acceptable other events shows it is clearly a measurement as much of social standing and wealth as it is of the arts. (What does the NEA think of areas of the country that can not financially support the ballet or opera Are they just cultural wastelands by definition?)

And don't even get me started on the wonderful aspect of statistics that allows less than 20,000 people from certain specific regions of the country to speak for all of us. That is annoying beyond measure.

This was only a study of adults however, so for the info on children the NEA went to several other studies. This is where things get sticky, as now you are mixing multiple methodologies into one final report. What primarily interested me here though was how the data on nine year old reading habits was gathered. (This data showed a sharp drop-off in pleasure reading from younger children to teenagers.) I could not find how the pleasure reading numbers for kids were determined after slogging through way too many bar graphs and rather silly sample questions on reading comprehension (who thought that a description of javelin throwing was the right way to go for high school kids? Why not car racing or football or the movies or maybe anything that any average American kid would recognize more easily?). I can only assume that children were asked in a basic survey how much reading for pleasure they do on a weekly basis. I think that whole measurement is problematic at best - how does a kid decide what is pleasure reading? And how do you balance the fact that a nine year old can read a 30-40 page book a week for pleasure and it is fine but a 17 year old must read...what - a 200 or 300 page book to get the same positive result? It's a strange comparison and I don't think it works. The average nine year old has tv, bike riding and books to think about. The average 17 year old has dating, driving, after school work, after school sports and activities (which are much more important and significant at this age), a vastly increased school workload and what was that other thing again - oh yes - DATING!

I'm sure I read far less at 17 then I did at 9. I doubt my numbers increased again until I left college (other than summer vacations). I was still reading but not the same amount - I had far less time to do it compared to all those days at the beach and parties and on and on. I think it is fine that reading decreases in that time period. Don't even ask me how much my pleasure reading decreased the year after my son was born. It was all I could do to read a magazine those first few months.

In other words, we have lives and stuff happens. What we should care about is that books are familiar to teens and available to them and when they have time to go back they can. In other words, develop good reading habits early and you won't lose them permanently. It is like riding a bike in a lot of ways in that respect. (And I still think that reading is not an important enough part of our society and would love to see the government back off of all the mandatory testing and go instead for more time spent pleasure reading in school.)

As it happens, while I was wading through all this data there was a very interesting discussion going on over at Finding Wonderland about books with multicultural characters and themes (and even what "multicultural" is supposed to mean). This was sparked by the Brown Bookshelf, which is looking for books to celebrate African American History Month. What's interesting here though is that the books must be written by African American authors. The assumption I guess is that African American authors will write primarily about African American subjects or characters - that seems to be how the list is going at this time anyway. It's interesting how many of the books are also nonfiction - and focused on African American history. This whole project has me conflicted as well, because while I spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to find MG and YA books with minority characters (and I don't care who writes them), what I often find myself discovering are a lot of theme or problem books that involve racism or minority history. While I flat out loved Tony Johnston's new one, Bone by Bone by Bone, it is a pretty darn harsh look at the pre-Civil Rights south. I can't help but think that after awhile minority kids get sick and tired of all the big issue books.

I mean - don't they just want to read a girl detective book every now and again? (And yes, I know the obvious answer here.)

When I was teaching I was struck again and again by how well versed my minority students were in the history of their ethnic groups. The Af American kids in particular blew me away with all they knew about the Civil Rights movement, etc. The Native Amer kids could explain chapter and verse about Wounded Knee - the Hispanic kids knew all about Caeser Chavez, etc. (I say kids but this was a college history course - so over 18.) But ask anyone why the US was in WWI and they had no clue. Most had no clue about who we fought in WWII or what happened in Korea or Vietnam. (This was true for white and nonwhite students.) They knew about their race's history from stories they heard and from reading - from reading all those books for school reports, etc. Their families encouraged their learning about these subjects. Reading a SFF story about a nonwhite hero would have been a relief to them if they could have found it.

No such luck.

So - I wonder just how much race plays into this whole NEA thing. It's one thing when you are young to read about the white kids and be content with those stories but by the age of 16 aren't you sick of it? Don't you want the characters you follow to look like you to some degree? Don't you want some frame of reference with them? So maybe you get ticked and just quit reading. Maybe that's part of why some people aren't reading so much.

I don't know - I could be all wrong but this is how it looks right now from where I'm sitting. And would you believe I have only books on the Civil War and Muhammad Ali downstairs to review that include African American characters? Why is that business as usual in publishing? And please don't say it takes a long time to change because it's been this way for a long time. It's been this way forever.

I mean really - why doesn't the NEA do a study on that?


Ah, the way they gathered information. I went looking, hoping to see the actual questions, especially since the press release said, "we asked about things beyond literary reading," but then I didn't see how they actually defined things, or what the actual questions were.

The NEA's emphasis is the arts; and I think it's fairly clear that they mean only certain types of arts. So be it; that's their mission. But it bugs me that they are trying to increase support for the arts via "the sky is falling, no one reads" articles; and it bothers me that then it gets beyond the real issues of reading and valuing reading.

But, if one insists on linking reading to "good books" and to going to jazz concerts, well, they just lost a few more readers, made it that.much.harder for those of us encouraging reading.

sigh. off to work.

Thanks for doing the hard work. Haven't had time to read this, but this is largely the same alarmist idea of "the right people are not reading the right books, thus society is primed to dissolve," and the literati get depressed, but honestly, what does that do? How does that touch the issue that there is more support given to sports and business and fashion than there is to reading and valuing that in our communities? There's got to be something more to do than gnash teeth. We've got so many good starts with individual initiatives for various groups -- those efforts need to be supported and snowball. The money they spent on the study would have better served the communities by being a feet-on-the-ground type of action...

Ah, listen to me being idealistic about what organizations should be doing with their money! They never do, though. I see individuals are going to have to save the world, here. Again...

It's the definition of "the arts" where I always get frustrated - who decides what that is? I always imagine some star chamber somewhere saying "Not artistic enough - no!!" ha!

It is the individual programs that will make the difference here TadMack - as NEA clearly seems to be most focused on proving their own importance (the arts are dying, what will become of us without the NEA to keep supporting the right arts?!).

Very frustrating indeed.

Of course, if the NEA doesn't support ANY arts, then they will surely go kaput and seem inactive and obsolete. The more restrictive the definition of arts, the more esoteric they seem--and the fewer the people who will feel comfortable saying they are involved in "the arts" or "read literature" because their choice of arts or literature isn't High Art. I'm not arguing for all-inclusiveness--not at all--but it precludes useful discussions about quality and merit to draw lines in the sand that reflect outdated ideas of what's worthwhile...

Yes - these "lines in the sand" really make no sense at all to me and beg the question of just who in the world gets to draw them. I mean who decides if a play is true art or not? Or music - I am completely floored that music was classical or jazz only. Beyond the fact that rock and roll is an American music style, there's no blues? No folk? No cajun?

It's baffling how some music or books or dance is considered worthy while others are not. (Positive points for seeing the Nutcracker but negative points for seeing Bruce Springsteen? Really??)

The whole thing strains my brain - and it weighs on me as you can in the follow-up to this post.

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