History of Literacy
The earliest examples of pictorial written communication date back to 3500 B.C. (Piechota). In the centuries following the invention of written communication, only a small portion of human society learned to read and write. Those who learned to read often held public readings, much like modern theatrical performances. The first books are known to have originated in Rome, toward the end of the Roman Republic, approximately 23 BC. Paper books were also developed in the Middle East and in several Asian nations.
In medieval Europe, books were written by hand and individually crafted by specialists, making them expensive and rare. The development of the printing press, credited to German inventor Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century, was a major turning point in the popularization of printed literature. As printed books and manuscripts became more common in Europe, the literacy rate began to rise.
Reading rates among the American colonies were higher than in Europe. This was especially true of religious sects, such as the Puritans, who placed significant emphasis on private reading for religious enlightenment. Colonial governments made literacy a prerequisite for civic rights. Until the 1960s, Americans were required to pass a literacy test before being allowed to vote.
During and following the Industrial Revolution, recreational reading became a popular leisure activity in the United States and Europe. Industrial paper production significantly reduced the price of books, and education became more common. Literacy was the primary goal in early American public education. During the 1920s, recreational reading levels reached 70 percent in some parts of the United States.
After the invention of television, in the 1920s, some believed that recreational reading would decline rapidly. Contrary to predictions, reading levels increased from 1920 to 1980.
Beginning in the 1940s, the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts began conducting polls and surveys to gauge the recreational and educational reading habits of the American public. NEA surveys from 1942 indicated that around 40 percent of Americans were reading "literature, defined as books, plays, poetry or essays of any quality."
In 1982, the NEA estimated that 95 million Americans were reading literature at least once per year. From 1982 through 2002, the percentage of persons reading literature fell by 10 percent. As the number of persons attending movies or watching television remained stable or declined during this time, NEA researchers determined that television and cinema were not significant factors in the decline of reading. NEA researchers say that the statistics cannot explain the cause of the decline of reading, but they point to some obvious culprits such as the abundance and variety of entertainment media, as well as the failure of schools to inspire a habit of daily reading.