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We Are Reading Less Literature

That’s one finding of new research from the National Endowment for the Arts.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: lpnphotography/Flickr)

Since we’re all sick of talking about red states vs. blue states, let’s take a break and switch to a different metric. How about book states vs. movie states? Or dance states vs. museum states?

Those sort of breakdowns are found in a pair of studies just released by the National Endowment for the Arts, which track participation in the arts on both the national and state level. Though the research includes some fun findings, it also confirms at least one troubling trend: We’re increasingly less likely to read literature.

According to the NEA, the share of adults who report reading literature has steadily fallen in recent years, from 47 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2013 and 43.1 percent in 2015.

This continues a decades-long decline: In a 1982 survey, nearly 57 percent of Americans reported reading literature, which is defined in these studies as poetry, plays, short stories, or novels. (Ironically, this news follows the release of new research that links reading literature to the ability to empathize with others.)

The NEA does not offer an explanation for this finding, though the release of the rise of movies and other visual content on demand — which started in the 1980s with the VCR — is one likely culprit. After all, why read a novel when you have Netflix?

Why read a novel when you have Netflix?

The 2015 survey found close to 32 percent of American adults attended a live music, theater, or dance production over the previous 12 months. Nineteen percent attended an art exhibit.

Both figures are essentially the same as the previous survey, which was taken in 2013. That’s encouraging news for the arts community, as attendance declined slowly but steadily between 2002 and 2012. For now, at least, it seems to have plateaued.

The state-by-state survey found attendance rates at arts events were significantly greater than the United States average in Alaska, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Minnesota, Vermont, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia. Rates were significantly lower than the U.S. average in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

These trends can be attributed, in part, to two factors: a state’s poverty rate and its level of education (specifically, the percentage of residents who hold at least a bachelor’s degree). Vermonters, for example, attend music, theater, and dance performances at far higher levels than the national average. It’s not a coincidence that 44.8 percent of adults there have college degrees (compared to a national average of 24.8 percent).

The percentage of people who read literature also varied considerably from state to state. Between 58 and 60 percent of Oregon, Colorado, and Montana residents reported doing so, compared to only 37.5 percent of Texans.

Comparing the arts consumption habits of specific metropolitan areas, movie-going is a particularly popular pastime in Chicago and Dallas, while dance (as both a spectator and participatory activity) is unusually popular in New York City and San Francisco.

Creative writing is common in the highly literate Boston area, with about 10 percent of adults reporting they have taken a stab at a poem, screenplay, or novel. That’s a full four percentage points higher than the national average.

And 27 percent of residents of the greater Detroit area attend art exhibitions, which is far above the aforementioned national average of 19 percent. It turns out the Motor City loves its oils!