First the good news: according to Reading on the Rise, the latest survey sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of adult Americans reading rose to 119 million in 2008, compared to 115.5 million in 2002.
Now the bad news: If you crunch the numbers, and factor in the fact that the population increased by 19 million during that span, it puts the percentage of Americans who read any book in 2008 at 54.3%, which is actually down from 56.6% in 2002. Also, the latest survey includes online/electronic reading, which the previous surveys did not. NEA Chair Dana Gioia credits "...'Harry Potter' and 'Twilight' and Oprah and the Big Read and the Internet," but is quick to add that the battle is far from over.
My take? I think all of the above have been good for advancing the cause of reading. I also note that the timing and positioning of the report coincides with Mr. Gioia's departure from the Chairmanship. I'm not being cynical - Gioia has worked hard to initiate and advance many reading programs, the Big Read among them, and deserves to celebrate the contributions he has made to the cause. Were I in his shoes, I would welcome, and focus on, some good news at this juncture as well. But mostly I think we must be cautiously optimistic about what these things, and the change of administration, may signal for the future of reading... and carry on working tirelessly in homes, schools, libraries and bookstores to connect - and re-connect - reading with pleasure.
You can read more about this subject in this week's Publisher's Weekly - in Sara Nelson's column, Yes, He Can, and in More Americans are Reading, But..., which includes tables from the NEA study - as well as in the Wasington Post. You can also download the NEA's full report yourself at http://arts.endow.gov/news//news09/ReadingonRise.html