The number of Americans who read literature has dropped by 10 percent over the past decade, according to a survey released in 2004 by the National Endowment for the Arts. That loss of 20 million readers means that, for most Americans, "literature has no real existence," says Mark Bauerlein, editor of Forum, in a response to the arts endowment's report.
The response, in a journal published by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, includes comments from 12 scholars from across the country.
Of particular interest to humanities professors, writes Mr. Bauerlein, is that the drop increased to 17 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds. The dip "signifies a vast shift in youth culture," he says, and it is clear "the Internet, videogames, instant messaging, etc., have contributed to this decline."
Moreover, the decline in young readers has led to a shift in resources from literature programs to curricula dedicated to popular culture, film, and media and technology studies, writes Mr. Bauerlein.
To scholars taking part in the response, the implications of the survey's findings are far-reaching.
"It is apparent that my students do not know as much as they should know or as they need to know," writes Paul Voss, an associate professor of Renaissance literature at Georgia State University. "Specifically," he says, "they do not know how to read in the full sense of that term. More dangerously, they don't care to read. Apathy, in this case, is a far greater problem than ignorance."
The NEA report "is a powerful contribution to what is developing into a serious debate over the relation of reading to technology," writes Sharon Alusow Hart, a literature professor at East Tennessee State University.
But, while preserving readership in the face of technology may seem daunting, now is no time to back away from the challenge, writes Mr. Bauerlein. Like it or not, he says, the survival of literary expression "is no longer a departmental concern or a canon question. It is a public concern."
The article, "Reading at Risk: a Forum," is available online at http://www.bu.edu/literary/forum/onlineform.html
The NEA report, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," is available at http://www.nea.gov/news/news04/ReadingAtRisk.html