WASHINGTON -- The first modern celebrity -- the first person who, although not conspicuous in church or state, still made his work and life fascinating to a broad public -- may have been Charles Dickens. Novelist Jane Smiley so argues in her slender life of Dickens, and her point is particularly interesting in light of ``Reading at Risk,'' the National Endowment for the Arts' report on the decline of reading.
A survey of 17,135 persons reveals an accelerating decline in the reading of literature, especially among the young. Literary reading declined 5 percent between 1982 and 1992, then 14 percent in the next decade. Only 56.9 percent of Americans say they read a book of any sort in the past year, down from 60.9 percent in 1992. Only 46.7 percent of adults read any literature for pleasure.
The good news is that ``literature,'' as the survey defined it, excludes serious history, for which there is a sizable audience. The bad news is that any fiction counts as literature, and most fiction, like most of most things, is mediocre. But even allowing for the survey's methodological problems, the declining importance of reading in the menu of modern recreations is unsurprising and unsettling.
Dickens, a volcano of words, provided mass entertainment before modern technologies -- electricity, film, broadcasting -- made mass communication easy. His serialized novels seized the attention of the British public. And America's: ships arriving from England with the latest installment of Dickens' 1840 novel ``The Old Curiosity Shop'' reportedly were greeted by American dockworkers shouting, ``Did Little Nell die?''
When journalists in 1910 asked an aide to Teddy Roosevelt whether TR might run for president in 1912, the aide replied, ``Barkis is willin','' and he expected most journalists, and their readers, to recognize the reference to the wagon driver in ``David Copperfield'' who was more than merely willin' to marry Clara Peggotty, David's childhood nurse. Exposure to ``David Copperfield'' used to be a common facet of reaching adulthood in America. But today young adults 18-34, once the most avid readers, are among the least. This surely has something to do with the depredations of higher education: Professors, lusting after tenure and prestige, teach that the great works of the Western canon, properly deconstructed, are not explorations of the human spirit but mere reflections of power relations and social pathologies.