Thanks to Mobylives, I now realize that Caleb Crain has a blog, and a very good one. His post on the National Endowment for the Arts’ new Reading on the Rise (PDF) report is an essential read not just as a primer on the findings, but as a tonic to some of the inaccurate, even glib coverage that the report has inspired. Like Crain, I’m a little skeptical about interpreting the announced numbers as a new reading boom, and he gets at one issue that I haven’t seen other commentators address. Namely, response bias:
The sticky part about the measurement of reading, sociologically, is that reading is a prestige activity. People tend to lie and say they do more of it than they do. As the afterword to the new report points out, the NEA in the last few years has reached out to millions of Americans with brand-new, well-funded programs to encourage reading. In the fall of 2007 it released a report on reading’s decline that got lots of attention from journalists like me. Thanks in part to the NEA, literacy was a big news story in 2007 and 2008. I even saw it referred to on television, and I don’t watch much television. All of this is worthy and to the good. But it’s possible that in raising people’s awareness of the importance of reading, the NEA encouraged them to exaggerate their reading habits. With a survey like the NEA’s, which relies on self-reporting, there’s no way to know for sure whether reading habits themselves were changed. It’s as if there were a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle at work here. A government agency can either measure reading habits or intervene in them, but if it tries to do both, it runs the risk of measuring no more than the spread of its intervention message.