Remember Brigitta, the dark-haired von Trapp child in The Sound of Music who appears at her father’s whistle with her nose buried in a book? A stern Christopher Plummer holds out his hand for the offending hardback, then uses it to swat her on the behind—gently, of course.

That little girl was me as a kid. I read books at breakfast, during dinner, and on the playground at school. Once, in the fifth grade, I took home a test with a red C on it and a note that said, “Paige was reading her own book when we went over this material.”

At bedtime, I would cunningly plant a decoy paperback on my bedside table, which my dad would remove when it was time for lights out. As soon as he was gone, I would slip the book I was really reading from underneath my mattress and flick the light back on. Sometimes he would come to check on me and feel the lampshade to see if it was warm.

Then I read under the covers with a secret flashlight.

Reading for fun has made the endangered list for modern human behaviors, along with letter-writing, answering the phone without knowing who is calling, and eating carbohydrates.

According to Emory’s Mark Bauerlein, director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts, a survey commissioned by the NEA to gauge America’s interest in the arts unexpectedly revealed a steep decline in leisure reading between 1982 and 2002.

“Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America” indicates that literary reading–the voluntary, leisurely consumption of fiction, drama and poetry–has fallen by more than 10 percent in the last two decades, a loss of some twenty million potential readers. Barely half of those surveyed said they had voluntarily read a book, a short story, or a poem of any sort in the preceding year. Young adults made for the most startling statistics with a seventeen-point drop, taking them from one of the most avid groups of readers (60 percent) to one of the most ambivalent.

The study, released last summer, has sparked some alarm, with more than six hundred news articles and and opinion pieces appearing around the county. Bauerlein has spent the past several months publicizing the report in an effort, he hopes, to counter the downward trend.

“There is a huge shift in leisure habits away from book reading,” Bauerlein says. “It’s a catastrophic consumer trend. For publishing, the statistics are worrisome. If they applied to driving, General Motors would be looking at bankruptcy.”

As a professor of English at Emory, Bauerlein is more worried about culture than capitalism. He is concerned that, without at least a passing knowledge of literary works, young people will lack some critical context for their engagement in society–not only in the arts, but in civic and political processes as well. Literary reading, he says, has a strong connection to civic participation.

“A declining readership means that one of the profound embodiments of the human condition–literary expression–is disappearing from the lives of ordinary citizens,” Bauerlein wrote in the Denver Post. “The legacy of Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dickinson, Ellison . . . has no role in youth culture. How sharp the contrast with figures from the past! Think of Walt Whitman, who said he was ‘simmering simmering simmering’ until the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson brought him to a boil and inspired ‘Leaves of Grass.’”

The effects on colleges and universities are sobering. College students, Bauerlein claims, are entering school with poor reading and writing skills; 52 percent have to do some remedial work to reach college-level competence.

“Colleges are doing the work of high school,” he says. “When we have to do remedial course work for sixty more students than we thought, it becomes a huge expense.”

As reading and writing skills slip, so does basic knowledge in other critical areas, Bauerlein says.

“A growing body of research by diverse organizations demonstrates the meager levels of historical, civic, and cultural knowledge among the rising generation,” he wrote recently. “Education is designed to remedy these deficiencies, but if students don’t pick up the reading habit, the learning process turns into a desultory labor. Instead of reading books as a long-term formation of mind and sensibility, students search for information, download it, print it, and turn it in for a grade. The capacity for concentration and analysis never matures. The thirst for knowledge and the feel for words wither.”

So what is tempting our youth away from the Hardy Boys and Anne of Green Gables? You guessed it: TV tops Bauerlein’s list, along with video games, surfing the Internet, downloading music on their computers, instant messaging one another, and chatting on cell phones. Indeed, studies show the average American kid lives in a house with 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players, and one computer.

“There is a proliferation of digital entertainment to fill their leisure time,” Bauerlein says. “Books have less and less meaning in youth culture.”

But there are other factors, too. In the age of urban sprawl, longer commute times are cutting into families’ evening hours that might otherwise have been spent reading–either parents reading to children or family members reading on their own. And less time is devoted to actually reading in school, Bauerlein says. Children are expected to do their reading at home, but often sports and other activities shorten the time available for homework and encourage only rushed, cursory reading of school books and materials. The quality of school textbooks doesn’t help, either–they are frequently boring and poorly written, says Bauerlein, and fail to get children excited about the subject matter.

To be sure, Emory doesn’t seem to be seriously affected by the reported reading decline–at least not yet. Peter Dowell, professor and interim chair of the English department, says the University continues to welcome a higher-quality crop of students each year and for the most part he finds their reading and writing skills to be satisfactory, some even exceptional. But he acknowledges that his poetry classes are made up mostly of those students who were top of their advanced-placement English classes in high school, so they may not be representative of the majority.

“I have noticed,” Dowell says, “that the frame of reference of today’s students may not be quite as literary or bookish as they once were. In particular, visual materials are very much a part of the things they appreciate and are familiar with. Rather than comparing a poem to another poem or a work of fiction, they may draw comparisons with films or other visual representations.”

Professor John Bugge, who teaches many freshman courses, reports a slightly different experience. “I do think there has been a falling-off in reading books of literary value,” he says. “When I make an allusion to a book in class, people give me blank stares. But when I allude to a TV show, they know just what I’m talking about. It’s the audio-video culture generally, that and Blackberries, instant messaging–all the ways in which we communicate that are no longer by the printed word.”

Students agree that literary books hold little allure for them, particularly when they have heavy reading loads for their courses. Joe Bourne, an English and philosophy major from Falmouth, Maine, admits that even as a book lover, he doesn’t read in his free time as much as he used to.

“Maybe this is because I spend so much of my time reading for school; when I get a break, it’s nice to distance myself and do something else with my time,” he says. “But I think even if I were a math or psychology major I would not spend my free time reading at school because reading requires thought, whereas watching ‘Family Guy’ really doesn’t. Most of my friends probably don’t read for fun. They would rather work out, watch TV, listen to music, or go to a party, a bar, or a club.”

Part of the challenge may also lie where students prepare for college–high school. Students in high school are at a critical point in their development of a literary appreciation, Bauerlein says, yet many find “American Idol” far more compelling than Huckleberry Finn.

“There has been a breakdown of the rigorous standards in [high school] literature classes, from what I can tell,” Bugge says. “All too often, teachers who are pressed for time and want to keep their students interested have them watch movies of the classics. I think they would do well to expose them early to good literature and make sure they read.”

While universities are among those institutions most likely to feel the ill effects of a drop in reading, they are also ideally positioned to address the problem, Bauerlein says. He hopes to see universities such as Emory become more visible public advocates for reading, particularly through efforts that reach out to high school students directly. One such program is the Early College Initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, in which high school and college faculty work together to boost reading standards.

“What must happen is that universities should start working with high schools to develop stronger reading programs in the pre-college years,” he writes.

It would help, Bauerlein adds, if universities rewarded their faculty for such outreach to the same degree they are rewarded for research and publication in their fields. “One problem is the insularity of academics from public life,” he says. “In higher education, professors have no incentive to get involved in public culture. Public service is not going to get you tenure. It would make a real difference if faculty were granted promotions, course relief, awards, and fellowships for that kind of work.”

Emory’s Thomas Jefferson Award, given each spring to a faculty member for service to the University through personal activities, service, and leadership, is an example of rewarding professors’ contributions beyond the sphere of the lab, classroom, or discipline.

But a renewal of reading will take much more than the influence of higher education, Bauerlein acknowledges. “Books are slipping in mass culture,” he says. “This is a problem of a cultural and personal behavior, and it has to be addressed in a million different ways by hundreds of programs.”

Success stories include the American Academy of Pediatrics’ “Reach Out and Read” program, which allows all children who visit participating doctors’ offices to leave with a book and encourages parents to read with their kids. Some schools are implementing an hour a day just for reading. The “One Book, One Community” program has seen dozens of cities across the country join in reading the same book at the same time; Seattle has grown its participation every year since 1997.

And then there’s Oprah’s Book Club, a book-cover logo that has spawned and nurtured reading groups across the country. Talk-show guru Oprah Winfrey, Bauerlein points out, is one of the few TV hosts who still regularly features authors on her show. Some consider Oprah’s book choices to be too mainstream and popular for inclusion in the lofty category of literature; author Jonathan Franzen made headlines in 2002 when he scorned Oprah’s stamping of his novel The Corrections. But—no surprise—Bauerlein is a champion of the club.

“She was able to conserve the social aspect of reading, and that kind of word of mouth is better than any other marketing,” he says. “I mean, who else could get 700,000 copies of Anna Karenina printed?”

Me, I’m still a hopeless fiction junkie who gets bookstore gift cards for every birthday and Christmas, and I freely admit that I consider the Oprah logo to mean a good read. A stack of unread books on my bedside table makes me feel rich, even a little luxurious, like champagne in the refrigerator.

As I have since I was a kid, I wind down every evening with a chapter or two from a novel. I don’t have to sneak the light on anymore (although sometimes, if my partner is very tired, I read with a book light). On the rare occasions when I travel and have the chance to read for hours on end, I still relish that dreamy, slightly dazed feeling that comes from living more in a fictional world than the real one, for a time.

I have tried not to push the reading habit too hard with my eight-year-old son, because I hope it will become a pleasure for him, not a chore. But every night at bedtime I let him stay up a few extra minutes to read, pretending he’s getting away with something. And I can see, when I come in to turn out the light, that he is beginning to discover the quiet joy of a good book.




© 2005 Emory University