New York The latest National Endowment for the Arts report draws on a variety of sources, public and private, and essentially reaches one conclusion: Americans are reading less.
The 99-page study, "To Read or Not to Read," gathers data on everything from how many 9-year-olds read every day for "fun" (54 percent) to the percentage of high school graduates deemed by employers as "deficient" in writing in English (72 percent).
"I've done a lot of work in statistics in my career, and I've never seen a situation where so much data was pulled from so many places and absolutely everything is so consistent," NEA chairman Dana Gioia said.
Among the findings:
¢ In 2002, only 52 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 - the college years - read a book voluntarily, down from 59 percent in 1992.
¢ Money spent on books, adjusted for inflation, dropped 14 percent from 1985 to 2005 and has fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s.
¢ The number of adults with bachelor's degrees and "proficient in reading prose" dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003.
Some news is good, notably among 9-year-olds, whose reading comprehension scores have soared since the early 1990s.
"I think there's been an enormous investment in teaching kids to read in elementary school," Gioia said. "Kids are doing better at 9 and at 11. At 13, they're doing no worse, but then you see this catastrophic fall-off. ... If kids are put into this electronic culture without any counterbalancing efforts, they will stop reading."
Publishers and booksellers have noted that teen fiction is a rapidly expanding category in an otherwise flat market, but some wonder how much of that growth has been caused by the "Harry Potter" books, the last of which came out in July.
"It's great that millions of kids are reading these long, intricate novels, but reading one such book every 18 months doesn't make up for daily reading," Gioia said.
The report emphasizes the social benefits of reading: "Literary readers" are more likely to exercise, visit art museums, keep up with current events, vote in presidential elections and perform volunteer work.