« Good Morning... | Main | Kids These Days: »

May 25, 2005



Kevin: I should point out the following:

If you actually READ the sixty-page "Reading at Risk" PDF, you'll find that it's hardly the phrenological model that you and Paul Colins have depicted it as. According to Appendix A, 17,135 participants responded to the SPPA. This was issued as a supplement to the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Study -- in other words, an appropriate sample size. Collins is quite wrong when he writes, "Presumably that response rate is for those people who picked up the phone." As spelled out explicitly in the VERY APPENDIX, the NEA points out that a phone-exclusive approach to the SPPA failed in 1997 and the results were discarded because they didn't reflect an appropriate sample size. So what did the Census Bureau do? They used several approaches.

In fact, I'm amazed that Collins would ASSUME, rather than picking up the phone like a REAL journalist and call the NEA and the U.S. Census Bureau to determine the specific percentage of respondents answering the SPPA by phone, in person, or by mail. Of course, actually determining the facts means having to dispense with an angry and conveniently under-researched op-ed rant for the Voice.

So we're left with the report itself, which goes into considerable detail about a number of issues (and serves as an interesting companion piece for Robert Kaplan's revealing book, "Bowling Alone," which reported similar trends regarding the dissolution of community). Frankly, I'm amazed that anyone schooled in the humanities would dismiss a meticulous study with the wave of a hand without going into CONCRETE AND SUPPORTIVE examples as to why they take offense to it or why the data collection methods are wrong. That's as off-base as Bush going to war because he has a hunch that there might be a connection between al Qaeda and Iraq, but can't exactly find the connections. It's a dangerous anti-intellectual precedent.

The "Reading at Risk" report may not be the kind of news you want to hear (certainly it made me disheartened too), but while you live in a city that has been heralded as one of the most book-friendly cities in the country, keep in mind there are numerous parts of the heartland where people haven't even read a novel. People your age and younger. While your goal within "Bookmark This" is admirable and one that I support, I'm dismayed that you would resort to several inductive fallacies to prove your point.

Christian Bauman

Hi, One of the Bookmark Now contributors speaking up here. Ed: good points all, above. But no need to beat up on Kevin -- he's worked very hard to put together a book that I would buy even if I wasn't in it, a really interesting look at process, personalities, pencil-pushing, and publication pandering.

Your points above taken, but (from my contributor's perspective) I think what we ended up with was not so much the perceived "the sky-is-falling isn't true," but rather a collection of working writers talking about why they wanted to write even though the sky might be falling, and why we continue even as the sky falls.

Personally, in my own opinion, I don't feel the truth in either of the extremes: I don't think the sky is falling, but I will allow I see some popped seams. In the end, to me, it doesn't much matter. I write because it is what I do, and I don't have much choice in the matter. And, as a reader, I have no shortage of new fiction to choose from.

Anyway, did I actually say anything here? Maybe not. More on my take of things in the Bookmark Now exceprt over at IdentityTheory.com today. And you'll see that's about as concrete and solid as what I've written here...

Kevin Smokler


I've never argued with the Report's methodology because I don't know the first thing about research methology and would talking out of my ear. What I objected to was the conversation in the wake of the report which seems to subscribe to yet another convenient generational basis: That young people don't read, arent as intellctually rigorous as their forebearers and have drugged themselves into a stupor with flashier pursuits. Not only is this incorrect (as your blog and this one make clear) but precisely the example of sloppy journalism you speak of. I would liketo find once piece of media analysis about the report, where the commentator or journalist, in their research, actually spoke to someone under 40 about their reading habits. If it even exists, I'd like to know.

Paul Collins

First, I want to thank you for pointing out to my error on the SPPA methodology: the 2002 response rate I cite from the Reading at Risk's Appendix C was 70 percent, but your comment sent me back again to Appendix A, which does show it was not necessarily a simple matter of telephone responses. So my criticism on that account was indeed incorrect.

But I'm not sure that the many other problems I raised in Voice essay can be so easily dismissed – not the mystifying privileging of only certain populations and genres, and particularly not the manner in which Dana Gioia's preface draws causal conclusions that are explicitly denied within the actual study.

Is "Reading at Risk"? I have my doubts, given the long history of such alarmist rhetoric. But if it is, we certainly won't find out from the NEA's report.


Christian: You're right. Perhaps I was a bit hard on Kevin. And Kevin's diligence was never in dispute here. Where bulls storm at the sight of red, in this age of unilateralism, it's inductive reasoning for me. :)

And despite your professed humility, I would contend that your essay and your comment serve as appropriate ripostes to the crisis, perhaps inadvertently, in identifying the joys of reading.

Kevin: I can understand your anger at the "conversation" spawned by the report. But I'm still perplexed that it has, as you suggest above, continued to flourish. Aside from the one radio program that you cited above, you don't list any other examples in the media. Further, when one goes to the report itself, one finds an attempt to track the problem -- certainly in a way that no other agency or organization has been doing.

The concern here stems not from the fact that young people are "not reading," but that FEWER young people are reading. Certainly, we can all agree that so long as books exist, there will always be young people who will be attracted to books. The BEA report attempted to discern why that was. Why the results haven't been corroborated or explored further is a mystery to me.

In fact, Kevin, there was an article in the Boston Globe the other day that DID ask teenagers (specifically, a junior named Grace Strother) about their reading habits. The results were not promising for the future reading of literary classics.

Paul: I don't have the time right now to corroborate your claims about Giola's preface, but I will check it out. As to the class-related data, it's all there in the appendices. But I don't see what's wrong with pointing out that people who might read Faulkner instead of Grisham might actually perform more charity work.

Your point about the "crisis," however, is well-taken. Certainly, the results are dispiriting. I happen to believe the decline in reading is a crisis or could, at the very least, become a crisis. But as you've pointed out, "risk" is a definition that varies from person to person.

Kevin Smokler


I'd be willing to dig up more examples of this one-sided conversation around the Report but I also want to make sure we get some more topics going here.

And thank you for the Boston Globe article. Let me run with that now.

Paul Collins

It depends, too, on which teenagers you ask... although this Christian Science Monitor article notes that teenaged boys don't take to certain books, the sidebar set of recommendations by them is not a bad list, either.

Ed, the specific passage that I have a problem with by Gioia is: "Reading at Risk merely documents and quantifies a huge cultural transformation that most Americans have already noted -- our society's massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information. Reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement. Indeed, reading itself is a progressive skill that depends on years of education and practice. By contrast, most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audiences, and indeed often require no more than passive participation. Even interactive electronic media, such as video games and the Internet, foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification. While oral culture has a rich immediacy that is not to be dismissed, and electronic media offer the considerable advantages of diversity and access, print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible."

Ok. First, why are novels, plays, and poetry privileged forms of these "complex communications and insights"? Right off the bat, this really is a serious problem with the study.

The report on page 42 finds "It is not clear from SPPA data how much influence TV watching has on literary reading" -- though it seems to be mild, and not at all clear whether those watching lots of tv would be reading or simply doing something else non-literary.

And a long excerpt from Page 43: "If the 2002 data represent a declining trend, it is tempting to suggest that fewer people are reading literature and now prefer visual and audio entertainment. Again, the data -- both from SPPA and other sources -- do not readily quantify this explanation.

As discussed in Chapter 3, television does not seem to be the culprit. In 2002, those who do read and those who do not read literature watched about the same amount of TV per day -- three hours worth.

The Internet, however, could have played a role. During the time period when the literature participation rates declined, home Internet use soared. According to a 2000 Census Bureau report, 42 percent of households used the Internet at home -- up dramatically from 26 percent in 1998, one of the earliest years of the Bureau's tracking.By contrast, literary reading rates reported in 1982 and 1992 were virtually identical in a period before the Internet was widely available. It was not until 2002 that the reported percentage of adults reading literature dropped considerably. Also, home Internet users have a similar profile to literary readers -- they are likely to be well educated (bachelor's degree or higher) and belong to the age group whose reading rates show the greatest percentage drop. Home Internet use was the greatest (50.2 percent) for people ages 25-44. However, this pattern of falling literary reading rates timed with rising home Internet use may only be coincidental. The SPPA did not ask if people substituted Internet surfing for reading."

Gioia's implication that reading is being displaced by most other media is not clearly supported by the study itself, and it sounds like the jury is still out on the Internet's influence. And yet, if memory serves correctly, the media reports on "Reading at Risk" consistently cited this fear, as well as the falling rates of "literary reading" (again, which doesn't include many other forms of what I would consider complex reading) as something to be worried about.

All of us are passionate about literature, and there are days where I too think -- "Is reading going in the wrong direction?" Time will tell. Most likely, it is moving so many directions that there's no one answer that that question. Probably some reading is; assuredly some is not. Whether that amounts to an generic/aesthetic concern or a social one is another question altogether, though, and I'm not yet convinced that the two concerns can be conflated.


FWIW, I'd like to make the point that the Reading at Risk report never singled out TV or whatever for the decline of reading. It said "literature now competes with an enormous array of electronic media . . . the culumative presence of these alternatives have increasingly drawn Americans away from reading."

I'm not quite sure this is the same as raising the alert over the rock'n'roll generation 40 years ago.

Also, I'll point to yesterday's NYTimes article on the increasing popularity of audiobooks, which people apparently now consider "reading" too. I mean, when you have someone walking thier dog while listening to an audiobook and calling that "reading," that indicates a that ideas of reading are changing and that busy people are giving it less due.

Paul Collins


I take your point, but Gioia's not writing a geometric proof here -- he's making an argument by implication, and you don't need a ruler and a sharpie to connect his dots. After a gloomy opening talking of reading's decline, he spends a significant part of a one-page preface speaking of the rise of electronic media. Why else talk about its rise? It's a rhetorical trick, and he knew how media and talking heads would (mis)interpret this coupling: and in that regard, he was exactly right.

Btw -- notice how today's Times piece claimed the NEA report said that people were reading fewer books than a decade ago? This is why that report is so damned problematic. Where are the Times factcheckers? That is not what the NEA said: they said that people were doing less literary reading, whatever that is. (And it doesn't include Art Spiegelman or John McPhee, apparently.) And yet the Times characterization is hardly surprising. I think Reading at Risk is designed -- by accident or, in the case of that preface, I think on purpose -- to be misreported.


Paul: He didn't say "privileged." He said "progressive." That's progressive, not in a political sense, but as in Definition 4 of Merriam-Webster, which states, "increasing in extent or severity." I think it you'd be hard-pressed to argue that it takes years of reading comprehension and careful study for a student to work himself (progressing himself) up to read "Absalom! Absalom!" or "The Recognitions." Meanwhile, something along the lines of the latest Super Mario game can, in fact, be mastered with ease. As video game enjoyer Salman Rushdie once confessed in an interview, he liked video games but felt that he was diappointed when they were over because it was like filling in a puzzle and having all the answers revealed. Meanwhile, with someone like Faulkner or Gaddis, the reader finds new meaning and details with each reread. I like the frequent video game too, but are you honestly suggesting, Paul, that the details within a side quest are somehow comparable to examining Faulkner's writing style?

But then this literature vs. video game nonsense gets into Steven Johnson-style contrarianism. So I'll stop for now.

I'm certainly with you on the off-base "short attention span and accelerated gratification" hypocrisy and object to it profoundly. But again (and correct me if my impressions are wrong here), what you seem to be quibbling over is Giola's introduction at the expense of delving into the study, which is a bit like getting worked up over the Penguin introduction in a careful discussion of "War and Peace." What of the study itself, Paul? Your Voice article states, "its statistical conclusions are pure Rufus T. Firefly," and all I'm asking here is why and how you concluded this. From everything you're telling us here, it all comes back to Giola.

And to clear up the "reading literature" question, it's there on P. 1 (p. 14 in the PDF): "The 2002 SPAA asked reporters if, during the past 12 months, they had read any novels or short stories, plays, or poetry. A positive response to any of those three categories is counted as reading literature, including popular genres such as mysteries, as well as contemporary and classic literary fiction. No distinctions were drawn on the quality of literary works." (Emphasis added)

Does that mean crap like Laurell K. Hamilton and John Grisham? Yes. Does that mean graphic novels published by conglomerates? Yes.

Again, Paul, I'm all for questioning anything. But when the answers can be repeatedly found within the study itself (although it is 60 pages), your argument appears to have been guided more by emotions instead of the steady one-two emotional/examples punch.

Paul Collins

Hmm... I'm thinking was a little rich of me to complain about the Times factchecking in my previous post when my own mistake on the SPPA started this thread.

Still... Ed, we might not be on the same page here about the SPPA. The quality of the literature itself is not the issue I raised in my essay. The problem I had with the study is that it limits its definition of reading, e.g. leaving out nonfiction, not to mention various other genres such as graphic novels. That is why I made the snipe about Bergdorf Blondes v. Persepolis. The survey question is so fundamentally flawed that, no matter how well run the rest of the study is, it is fundamentally compromised. After all, they didn't call it "Novels and Poetry and Plays At Risk" -- they called it "Reading at Risk," and I flat out do not buy their narrow definition of reading.

And yes, I did pick on Gioia's 1-page preface a lot. But you know, that's the one page the media was going to quote from -- and he knew that too.

Anyway. I'll stop beating my dead horse here. I'm actually probably in more agreement with you on a lot of this stuff than not, but... I just don't think the NEA report proves the things that most people believed it to have done. Someone else may prove them -- and if they do, then I am perfectly prepared to believe them. But I'm still waiting to be convinced.

unlinkable James

Whoops (sorry about that),
On the future of reading, I think its not that people are less akin to reading, in fact with the degradation of television and movies the publishing business is more apt to grow under the circumstances. I think the "shrinking" of the American attention span is most useful as a writing device but the reality is that because people are not riveted to TV is a reflection that the TV is not doing its job as an entertainment media, not that people are less able to focus on the media. Bad TV, good books. Good books, bad TV.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."