Americans Are Reading Fewer Novels, but More Poetry

New National Endowment for the Arts research finds arts attendance is rising, but remains below 2002 levels.
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Read any good novels lately? A major new study from the National Endowment for the Arts suggests the odds of a positive reply have declined over the past five years.

In its just-released look at trends in arts attendance and literary reading, it reports the percentage of American adults who read novels or short stories has declined over the past five years, from 45.2 percent in 2012 to 41.8 percent in 2017. The percentage who read poetry has increased over that same period, from 6.7 percent to 11.7 percent.

Perhaps the recent boom in high-quality television series is satisfying some of our thirst for long-form narratives and complex characters. Or it may be that, in this hectic era, the concentrated joys of reading poetry are a better use for our limited free time.

The report paints a generally positive picture for the arts in America. Attendance at both visual and performing arts events is up significantly over the past five years, although it has yet to climb back to 2002 levels.

In the 2017 survey, 43.4 percent of American adults—nearly 107 million people—reported they attended a live arts performance during the previous 12 months. That's up significantly from 40.2 percent in 2012.

This increase is driven not by stage plays or classical music concerts (which have basically held their own in recent years), but rather by attendance at less-formal events. The percentage of adults who attended outdoor performing arts festivals increased from 20.8 percent in 2008 and 2012 to 24.2 percent in 2017.

The percent of adults attending other, unspecified performing arts events saw a similar increase: from 11.6 percent in 2012 to 15 percent in 2017. This category includes more popular music genres, including rock, rap, and country.

Attendance boosts were similar for the visual arts. The percentage of adults visiting art museums or galleries rose from 21 percent in 2012 to 23.7 percent in 2017. The percent of those "touring parks, monuments, buildings, or neighborhoods for historic or design value" grew from just under 24 percent in 2012 to 28.3 percent in 2017.

Another encouraging statistic: The rise in museum attendance was due in part to "greater numbers of art-goers among African Americans, 18- to 24-year-olds, and 35- to 44-year-olds." As anyone who has seen the lines of young people waiting to get into the new Broad Museum in Los Angeles, gallery-going is becoming hip again.

That said, art museum and gallery attendance remains below 2002 levels, as does attendance at nearly all performing arts genres.

For example, in 2002, 12.3 percent of Americans said they had seen a non-musical play in the past year (excluding high school productions). By 2012, that figure had fallen to 8.3 percent. In 2017, it rose to 9.4 percent—an encouraging increase, but still well below previous levels.

It's never been clear whether this long-term decline in arts attendance is the result of the economic downturn (theater tickets tend to be expensive), or whether it reflects a wider shift in behavior, as our free time is increasingly eaten up by the explosion in electronic options.

The fact the percentage of adults who report reading "any books not required for work or school" has slipped from 56.6 percent in 2002 to 52.7 percent in 2017 suggests our attention is indeed being diverted elsewhere.

Another indicator also points in that direction. Poetry reading, which doesn't require huge chunks of time, is one of the few art forms where participation has basically caught up to the 2002 level.

Just over 12 percent of Americans that year reported reading poetry; a comparable 11.7 percent did so in 2017. (Play reading has similarly bounced back, no doubt due in part to the 2016 release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.)

It's notable that so much of the increase in performing-arts attendance is driven by the increased popularity of outdoor festivals. This suggests the unique joy of gathering in groups to share a cultural experience remains as enticing as ever—but many Americans remain wary of traditional theaters and concert halls.

Miami's New World Symphony simulcasts many of its concerts on the side of its hall, and architect Frank Gehry is revisiting the idea of doing something similar at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Perhaps creating a joyous outdoor experience is a promising way to tempt people inside.

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