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Literacy lag cause for concern Reading remains a key to enrichment, improvement of lives and communities

If you are reading this, you are not part of the problem. And that's the problem, because most of the people we need to reach in this editorial are, by definition, not reading it.

A study from the National Endowment for the Arts brings news about the reading habits of the American people that is no less alarming for the fact that it is no surprise. Not only are Americans, teenagers and older, reading less than they ever have, they are reading more poorly, too.

Despite the happy fact that reading scores for 9-year-olds have climbed sharply in recent years, data for both quantity and quality of reading starts to dip sharply after that age.

We're not just talking about another generation that hasn't read "Moby Dick." We're talking about more and more teens and adults who seldom if ever read anything they don't have to read for school or work. That leaves them dangerously uninformed about their world, both in terms of the current events they should be up on to be good citizens and the scientific and cultural knowledge that would create more well-rounded, thoughtful people.

The study, also not surprisingly, shows a correlation between good reading habits and high reading skills, and further correlation between good reading skills and success in school and in the workplace. People who read more do better at all kinds of things, from earning higher incomes to staying out of trouble with the law, from doing more charitable work to even getting outside and getting some exercise and fresh air.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia went out of his way to say that the data does not prove cause-and-effect. It cannot be scientifically concluded that people read more poorly because they read less often. But it's hard not to, well, read between the lines and draw the conclusion that reading is a skill that has to be practiced to stay sharp.

If you have read this far into this essay, you're getting some practice. But you may be the one who least needs it.

We can blame the schools for what they haven't been able to do, or blame the Internet, TV and all those other distractions for what they have done. We can support programs that give books to children and be willing to pay what it costs to keep public libraries open more hours with more programs and new books. We can take some pleasure in the fact that they keep building chain bookstores and that Internet bookseller Amazon, among the first dot-com gold mines, has come out with a new electronic book that may help its bottom line along with our collective intelligence.

But the best thing we can do is to read, right out there in public, as a model for children and an example to our neighbors, and then talk about what we have read.

Because, as Mark Twain said, "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can not read them."

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