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A new national report shows Americans aren't reading literature for pleasure anymore.

Western New Yorkers don't deny it.

They admit that they're more likely, most days, to reach for the remote control instead of the latest hot novel or a dog-eared copy of "Pride and Prejudice."

But they say they have an excuse: stress.

People in the Buffalo area said they are so overtaxed by work, school, child care and family responsibilities that they typically turn for relaxation to mindless enjoyments -- like TV, video games and movies -- rather than books.

"I don't read at all," said West Side resident Brenda Mojica, 29, who was returning a DVD to a rental shop on Ferry Street. "A book? Oh my God. Maybe it's been a year, at least."

That kind of response illustrates the findings of a new report by the National Endowment for the Arts. Overall, the report found, Americans of all ages, education levels and income groups aren't reading nearly as much as they used to, even 20 years ago.

Less than half of adult Americans now read literature in their free time. Literary reading is taking a bigger beating than reading in general -- but rates dropped there, too.

"Literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young," Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA, stated in the report. He called the situation "dire."

In Buffalo, books -- and the literary culture that surrounds them -- remain a popular source of entertainment, even though we may not be reading every page of the ones we pick up.

The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library boasts strong circulation figures for hardcover books, compared with DVDs, CDs and high-tech items, said Ami Patrick, a library spokeswoman.

And circulation itself is increasing -- in fact, 2003 was a record-setting year for the number of items checked out of the library: 8,875,762.

"We don't believe books will ever go away," said Patrick. "The other media have enhanced library services, but the book is still our core service."

In addition, book discussions held by the region's most prominent book club -- the Buffalo-based Bistro Bookers -- regularly draw more than a hundred people to their events downtown.

Still, people coming to those events nowadays are much less likely to have actually read the book being discussed, said organizer Ann M. Angelo, who founded Bistro Bookers in 1990.

"People scan, they flip through things, and they go right to the index," she said. "I think people buy books and never read them."

You can't say that about David Goehrig. He tries -- and usually manages -- to read a book a week. He reads all kinds of genres. Last week, he was working his way through a Patrick McCabe novel at Cafe Aroma in Buffalo.

"People don't give themselves enough time to read for fun," said Goehrig, who has a master's degree in late ancient and early medieval history and hopes to start a video game company. "I happen to play a lot more than the average person."

Goehrig, 27, is the kind of reader the National Endowment for the Arts is particularly worried about. The national study showed that:

Men read literature much less than women these days, and the rate at which they read is declining faster. A little more than one-third of American men now read literature, the report stated.

Literary reading is declining across all education levels. People with college degrees are likely to read more than others, but rates there are dropping, too.

Young people are moving away from reading more dramatically than other age groups. Twenty years ago, people between the ages of 18 and 34 used to be the group most likely to read literature in their free time -- now, with the exception of the oldest seniors, they're the least likely.

The instant-gratification culture of TV, movies and video games is blamed for the decline in reading, both by the NEA and by people who aren't big readers.

"I don't read, because my attention span is too short," joked Drew Yates, 20, of Buffalo. "I lose interest right away, before the first chapter is done."

But stress and lack of time were the top factors that people in the Buffalo area used to explain why they aren't reading more.

"My job doesn't allow me to read at all during the school year," said Patricia Hills, a Buffalo resident who teaches music in the Amherst schools. "I tend to read mostly in the summer. I tend to read heavier stuff in the summer -- I like the classics."

Angelo, the book club founder, said she sympathizes with people who feel overwhelmed by their hectic schedules and never pick up a novel. That's why Bistro Bookers doesn't exclude people who don't read the books from coming to its events.

"It's tough," said Angelo. "At the end of the day, people need to just zone out in front of a mindless (TV) show. To expect people to work so many hours . . . at the end of the day to say, 'I've had a hard day and now I'm going to read this new book on Iraq' -- my God, that's a lot to ask."

Lynn Brunner, a stay-at-home mom from East Aurora, said her daily round of activities and child rearing leaves her little time to sit down with a book.

"There's so much more that I would read, if I had the time," Brunner said.


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