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Don't just read for fun

We've taught kids to think reading is entertainment. But it's also a source of renewal.

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Laments about the decline of interest in reading have become a national tradition, as evidenced by the recent release of yet another federal report noting further erosion in the number of Americans who read for pleasure.

In its latest findings, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) mentioned that the percentage of 13-year-old students who read almost every day for fun dropped from 35 percent in 1984 to 30 percent in 2004. During the same period, the figure for 17-year-olds declined from 31 percent to 22 percent.

Alarm bells about America's reading habits date back to at least 1951, when about 100 writers, publishers, academics, and government officials convened in Washington to discuss how they might encourage more Americans to read. Then, as now, they were concerned that television, radio, and the speed of modern life distracted Americans from reading.

Among the results of that conference was "The Wonderful World of Books," a slender 1953 paperback in which commentators embrace the joys of reading and exhort their fellow citizens to do the same.

When I came across a yellowed copy of the anthology in a Boston bookstore three years ago, I felt as though I'd discovered the seminal gospel of what might be called the American "Reading is Fun" movement.

Illustrated with cheerful cartoons of characters who smile rhapsodically as they comb cherished volumes, the book stresses reading as an unalloyed delight. Fairly representative of the contributors is legendary publisher Bennett Cerf, who extols the ecstasy of the printed word in an essay titled, "It's Fun to Read."

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