During the past twenty years there has been much debate over topics regarding literacy and literature in America. In June 2004, based on their comparison of literary reading surveys from 1982, 1992, and 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts released the following statement.
The accelerating declines in literary reading among all demographic groups of American adults indicate an imminent cultural crisis. 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. (NEA, “Reading at Risk”)
In recent years, access to the Internet has become available to Americans of all ages and cultural backgrounds. Some authority figures in academia see this as a threat to the perpetuation of printed literature. Other authorities view the Internet as an additional medium for advancing literacy. Another problem authorities face is one of definition. Some authorities want a broader definition of what constitutes literature while others insist on a standard of quality for literary works. What follows are some thoughts and opinions on these related topics and others.
Some critics feel the NEA survey’s narrow definition of “literary reading” is the NEA’s feeble attempt to designate genres of literary importance. The “Reading at Risk” study defines literary readers as those who read short stories, poetry, and plays in their leisure time, excluding any reading done for work or school or on the Internet (NEA, “Reading at Risk”).
Stuart Moulthrop, co-author of the online dialogue, “New Literacies and Old,” questions the NEA’s use of such a conservative definition.
Why [doesn’t the NEA] include biographies, memoirs, or non-fiction books about history, science, economics, or even popular philosophy? I'll agree that most Americans know very little about fiction and poetry, even recent work in their own language. But most of us are yet more profoundly in the dark about the natural and social sciences. Which is the more serious problem? (Moulthrop and Kaplan, “New Literacies and Old”)
Excluding computer-based reading from a literary survey during a technological boom significantly reduces the scope of the NEA’s study. Moulthrop reminds us, “Reading has never been exclusively tied to the book” (Moulthrop and Kaplan, “New Literacies and Old”). During the Gutenberg era, books were too expensive, even for highly literate people. Literature dispersed through “pamphlets, posters, broadsides, letters, sermons and newspapers…had just as profound a cultural influence as novels and volumes of poetry” (Moulthrop and Kaplan, “New Literacies and Old”).
Erik Jacobson, of the National Institute for Literacy, questions the NEA’s proposal of a national decline in reading “for the first time in modern history” (Jacobson, “RE:...