When even the government thinks we’re not reading enough, there may be trouble

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

The National Endowment for the Arts is one of the more benevolent arms of government, offering financial stipends to artists of all stripes, especially writers. But with the early-June release of the ominous-sounding report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literacy Reading in America, the NEA dumped dark sentiments on the literary community at large.

Twenty years in the making, with statistics taken from a brawny sample of 17,000 Americans, the report states that if nothing is done about the decline in reading among “every age group, education level, income level, race, region and gender,” literature faces an extinction that only the eight-track and Edsel could understand. Furthermore, a decline as large 28 percent is marked among 18- to 34-year-olds.

The document itself is a polished affair with fancy paper, big, easy-to-read graphs and predigested summaries–all 51 pages of it. “Reading at Risk is not a collection of anecdotes, theories or opinions,” writes NEA chairman Dana Gioia. Yet, to read the hundreds of cranky op-ed pieces Reading at Risk inspired at every outlet from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle, one might think that the report is up for interpretation.

It has been called “an alarum,” a “jeremiad” and a “bleak but needed assessment.” The flurry seems to prove that, while handling statistics is about as natural as trying to make love to a robot, numbers do have the power to move people to action–whether to wail about the decline of civilization or to create programs that encourage more reading.

Before moving to Washington, D.C.–known more for its pundits than poets–Gioia, was one of Sonoma County’s local literati, residing in Windsor. He refused the position of NEA chairman for years. “I knew I’d have to give up my own writing life for the duration of the position,” he said last month on a brief visit home in order to be honored for his work by the Sonoma County Cultural Arts Council. Gioia finally agreed to the job in order to have a hand in those funding programs he believes in.

“I released the report publicly because I believe the burden of change should be placed on the culture itself. I wanted to stimulate a kind of national conversation that might move people to act,” he says.

And a national conversation is what he got. But one need not go to the national scale to find out what writers, teachers and booksellers are thinking regarding the fate of reading. The sentiment among Sonoma County authors and lit-activists suggests hope for literature’s future. In light of these conversations, it seems a better title for the report would have been Reading in Transition.

“Reading isn’t a pastime whose arc we can predict,” says Rebecca Lawton, a Sonoma resident, geologist and author of Reading Water. “My scientist’s mind says I’d have to work with the numbers to know what other interpretations are possible. If it’s a dark time for literature right now, we need to hold to the belief that our work sheds light on the gloom.”

The gloom from Gioia’s point of view is not just the fate of a sturdy book in one’s hand or the profits that publishing houses can generate. Readers–and here come the numbers again–tend to be statistically more involved in all areas of civic life.

“Literature is itself a human institution of irreplaceable value. If we lost our literary heritage, we’d be suffering an irreplaceable impoverishment with civic and social consequences. We’d lose the kind of activism and engagement that reading fosters,” Gioia says. These consequences extend to a reduction in museum- and theatergoers, those who volunteer and give to charity, attend sports events and become politically active.

“I can’t really feel us becoming a nonreading nation,” said Jane Love, events coordinator for Copperfield’s Books. “But I deal with readers every day.”

To combat the doom, Gioia recommends a three-pronged approach. First, he focuses on education, though surprisingly not for the early years. “Over the last 30 years in America, universities and colleges have brought in a kind of parochialism. They’re trying to take undergrads and turn them into little mini-professors by immersing them in the theoretical paraphernalia of the study of literature,” he says. In order to foster a lifelong commitment to reading the act must, Gioia suggests, be pleasurable.

“We’ve tried to get professional development at the expense of spiritual development, and that is a really bad trade for any civilization to make,” he says.

Step two falls on the media, which have been getting the lion’s share of upbraiding. “Media needs to create interesting and engaging conversations about reading and books,” Gioia chides. He cites Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion and, of course, a better known personality. “Oprah understands more about what’s going on in terms of books than [literary critic] Harold Bloom does,” he says. “The problem is that we need a thousand programs like hers.”

Finally, Gioia stresses that people need to organize activities and create public events around literature. Sonoma County resident Jean Hegland, author of Into the Forest and Windfalls, keeps hope kindled. “I’m willing to believe that reading may diminish, but at the same time I know in my bones that there will always be people who are devoted to books. A good example of the ardency of readers is the great number who belong to readers groups or book clubs.”

While many have sneered at the renaissance of the book club as an excuse for socializing and swapping gossip, and many accuse Oprah of soft-serving literature to the masses (though, after a recent show, Anna Karenina rose to the Top 10), these are exactly the kind of endeavors that have the potential to “inculcate the pleasure back into reading,” as Gioia suggests is necessary. The way to do this may just be through social activities and mass media. Luring people to the page by the promise of the movie or conversation to follow is a creative intersection. Besides, the NEA’s report does not indict any one source alone as the cause of the decline, not even television, to the surprise of many.

In the book-lined walls of the Sitting Room, the free lending library in Cotati cofounded by retired Sonoma State University English professor J. J. Wilson, Wilson and SSU instructor Inese Heinzel discuss the implications of the report. Wilson, who taught the 19th-century novel for years and defends the tactile beauty of books, learned to shift her techniques as technology intervened. “The evolution of the book–and of the reader–is going through some strange growing pains,” she says. “I had to lean away from lecture mode, which reduced the discourse some, but the students responded better.”

Heinzel agrees. “How we process and perceive information is changing. These new technologies are a maturation from the old. The technology is not the thing itself anymore; it’s the tool and the process by which to get information.”

Wilson, who might seem the least likely to defend anything that isn’t paper and ink, is nonetheless open. “Why do we say there’s not reading going on just because we can’t point to the last six books we’ve read? Reading a magazine or a newspaper is still reading.”

“The fact that a show like Oprah’s is so successful says to me that people want to read but they don’t know where to start,” says Heinzel. “I think if the door [to reading] is opened, does it matter what got it open?”

Though she’s staying flexible, Wilson admits it’s not easy. “It is rather like the heartbreaking koan of our times, how fast technology moves in; it’s like we’re getting carpal tunnel of the mind.”

Certainly a sense of grief at the change is natural, even as literary folks will be forced to usher it in. Laments Jane Love, “Wouldn’t it be quaint to see an encyclopedia salesman at your door? I think a set of maroon, leather-bound encyclopedias is all but extinct.”

Ultimately, any society that hopes to prevent the extinction of the mature pleasures of reading and its social consequences must remember where the inculcation begins.

“I remember starting my daughter Rose out on Goodnight Moon on her baby blanket, her arms and legs wiggling away in their state of infant wildness. She was enthralled, and that thrill of reading has stayed with her to this day, at age 14,” says Lawton.

In the laps of parents and in the rooms of public libraries and bookstores, reading–and with it culture–can be saved. In fact, just by reading this article, each one of you has performed a sliver of your civic duty for the day.

J. J. Wilson and Inese Heinzel speak on ‘Books, Who Needs Them?’ on Sunday, Sept. 12, at the Oakmont Sunday Symposium, Oakmont Village, Santa Rosa. For details, call 07.539.1611.

From the August 25-31, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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