This article was originally written for The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture
Americans have a reading problem. We seem to have lost our delight for reading. For starters, fewer of us can be found with our noses in a book these days. According to a recent Gallup poll, book readership is on the decline, with just 6% of U.S. adults naming reading as their favorite way to spend an evening. That’s down from 12% in 2016. During the height of the pandemic, when (presumably) we all had more time for leisure activities, Americans were more inclined to reach for the television remote than a bestselling novel. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. adults (age 15 and older) spent, on average, just 30 minutes per day reading in 2021, but upwards of three hours watching television.
A modest two-year increase in book sale activity between 2019 and 2021 had many observers believing the pandemic would give rise to a reading renaissance of sorts. But last year, those hopes were tempered when unit sales of print books fell 6.5%. Even more alarming than book-sale statistics is the percentage of Americans who have not picked up a book in the past 12 months. By one measure, roughly a quarter of American adults (23%) say they have not read a book in whole or part in the past year. Another study puts that figure closer to 50% and reports one in 10 adults hasn’t read a single book in the past decade.
And how’s this for a startling statistic: two-thirds of 4th graders in the U.S. cannot be classified as proficient readers. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) routinely measures trends in reading achievement among U.S. elementary and secondary students. NAEP’s 2022 report card showed average reading scores for 10-year-olds dropped three points compared to the previous testing period. Worse, in the 30 years since the current assessment framework was established, NAEP has reported no significant change in reading results. In other words, reading skills and proficiency levels have remained flat for three decades. No wonder reading isn’t a high priority for most adults.
Statistics like these ought to fuel a desire for closer scrutiny of America’s reading problem—in the classroom, but also in the broader public square. From a public policy standpoint, there is a lot of room for conversation about improving the state of reading in the U.S. For example, is it possible or even worthwhile to redirect the reading drift, or is reading passé in a digital age? How does reading benefit us as a society and as individuals? And are there habits we can cultivate that transcend reading? To even begin exploring the depths of these questions, we must start with a more fundamental question: Why read? Continue reading
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