The Loss of Literature

By Lawrence Hardy

Evan Hoppman loves to read books-mostly science fiction and fantasy. He reads when he's supposed to be doing his homework. He reads in the car after volunteering to go with his mother on errands. At night at his home in southern Maryland, he reads in bed under the covers, using a flashlight to illuminate the words.

Evan's reading habits may not seem unusual for a 10-year-old, but if he is still reading fiction by age 18, he will become part of a distinct, and rapidly dwindling, minority: American adults who engage in "literary reading"-anything from Shakespeare to Stephen King to the eerie stories that Evan devours after his family has gone to bed.

A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that the percentage of American adults who read literature-any literature, whether it's Crime and Punishment or romance novels-has declined rapidly over the past two decades. The most precipitous drop has been among 18-to 24-year-olds, who used to be among the nation's heaviest readers. Only about 43 percent of this group now reads literature, compared with nearly 60 percent in 1982.

"The accelerating declines in literary reading among all demographic groups of American adults indicate an imminent cultural crisis," the NEA report says. "The trends among younger adults warrant special concern, suggesting that-unless some effective solution is found-literary culture, and literacy in general, will continue to worsen. Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century."

Are we really facing an "imminent cultural crisis," as the NEA contends? Is literature on its way to becoming a dead language? If young adults are reading fewer novels and short stories, is it because they don't want to, because they can't understand them-or some combination of the two? And finally, what should schools be doing about it?

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