By Mike Linn
Unlike most women her age, 18-year-old Virginia Lee loves reading the literary works of some of the world’s most renown authors.
The Clovis High School graduate began reading Leo Tolstoy’s classic, “Anna Karenina,” about three weeks ago and said she should finish the novel within a day or two.
“I think it’s important to read some of the classics, it’s good to be well-read. It helps you relate to others,” she said.
But teens such as Lee are becoming harder and harder to find in America, according to a recently released survey from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).
Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America reports that fewer than half of American adults read literature and the numbers are declining rapidly, with the steepest rate of decline — 28 percent between 1982 and 2002 — occurring in the 18 to 24 age group.
The study also documents an overall decline of about 20 million literary readers nationwide in that time frame.
Novels, plays, short stories and poetry are all considered forms of literature.
“This report documents a national crisis,” NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said in a Thursday press release. “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life … To lose this human capacity — and all the diverse benefits it fosters — impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”
Local educators agree, saying the trend will certainly impact society.
Patrice Caldwell, associate professor of English at Eastern New Mexico University, has seen the drop firsthand: English majors declined by more than 50 percent from 1994 to 2003.
“If people are coming to college to get jobs, they may not see a direct correlation between the job they want and an English major,” she said. “They may see it as more enrichment and I don’t think that’s accurate. I think there’s writing skills needed in every profession, in every sector of the workplace.”
Caldwell believes the rise of media and graphics has changed the younger generation’s reading preference. Students are much more likely to get information online or from a magazine than between the isles of a library or the binds of a classic novel, she said.
Clovis High English teacher Carol Singletary, who taught Lee, said the trend is nothing new at the high school level, where it’s always a chore to get students interested in literature.
She said literature is important in helping students understand not only society but people of different cultures.
“Literature gives you a better understanding of how others think and feel,” she said. “That is the biggest loss if we’re not reading literature. We’re losing touch with that ability to empathize, to feel what others feel.”
Lee, who will attend Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, this fall, agrees with Singletary on the importance of reading the classics.
“Reading definitely broadens horizons and makes you think about things you wouldn’t normally,” she said. “I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to read literature.”