Friday, July 16, 2004

NEA study proves a difficult read for the book world
By David Mehegan, Globe Staff | July 15, 2004

The book world is still reeling with shock, puzzlement, and worry at last week's grim alarum from the National Endowment for the Arts about the decline of literary reading in America. In a survey of 17,000 adults, the NEA study, "Reading at Risk," found a 10-point drop over the last 20 years in the percentage of Americans who read novels, short stories, plays, or poetry. While the report found a decline in all book reading, literary reading saw the biggest decrease. Among adults aged 18 to 34, the rate of decline was especially steep -- 28 percent from 1982 to 2002.

In the report's foreword, poet and NEA chairman Dana Gioia wrote darkly, "Anyone who loves literature or values the cultural, intellectual, and political importance of active and engaged literacy . . . will respond to this report with grave concern." While citing no single cause of the trend, the report pointed to increased television watching, use of the Internet, and such diversions as video games and other electronic entertainments.

Underlying the questions what is happening and why is a deeper question: Who cares? Why is literary reading important? Gioia's answer, in a telephone interview, emphasized the social and political importance of literature. "Reading a novel puts you in the mind of another person," Gioia said. "It develops your ability to imagine the world from another perspective. It helps us work together to build a society in which all people prosper together."

"I found the report very distressing," said poet David Lehman, series editor of the "Best American Poetry" and professor at Bennington College and New York University. "The results tally with all the anecdotal evidence, with my experience as teacher and editor. I fear that we set too little value on our own cultural heritage, as expressed in the words that could be considered timeless -- works of literature, history, and philosophy. A person who has not read a poem has not read the Gettysburg Address."

One writer pointed out that fiction can get to the truth of things that nonfiction cannot. "I spent a night locked up in Haiti because I had a copy of `The Comedians' with me," recalled Norman Sherry, professor of literature at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of the three-volume "Life of Graham Greene." (Volume three will be published in September.) The Greene novel was confiscated by Haitian police.

"The Comedians" is Greene's devastating 1966 fictional indictment of the repressive Francois Duvalier regime. During the 1970s, Sherry was in Haiti researching Greene's visits there. Greene "was hated and detested by Duvalier," Sherry said by telephone, "because that book is a total life of the country. Greene puts four characters together, and you get the whole of life, the living experience of Haiti. A really great novel can give you more than a book of history."

Asked if we should care whether literary reading declines, Connecticut novelist and short-story writer Amy Bloom answered, "Who cares if all the oceans dry up? You still have a faucet in your house. It's part of being an imaginative, . . . empathic person. When I would stay up, as a child, reading [Charles Dickens's] `A Tale of Two Cities' by flashlight in bed, part of what happened was that I was [protagonist] Sidney Carton. There was no one else to tell me who Sidney Carton was. I could feel more that was outside my own range. I could roam my entire interior landscape with complete freedom, and that sense of endless internal possibility is only available with reading."

Some say that making it a duty can discourage literary reading in childhood. "There is a lot of required reading in school," said Leonard Marcus, children's book editor of Parenting magazine, "and children learn not to want to read books that way, because it is like taking medicine." Marcus says his son, at about age 10, had devoured the long novels of Brian Jacques, the British fantasy writer. However, "his teacher found out and discouraged him -- `Why aren't you reading something of importance or social value?' If children read less, it has to do with their not being given enjoyable experiences to make books feel valuable to them."

While some college teachers, such as Lehman, find that the NEA findings confirm their own sense of a decline in literary knowledge and interest among youth, others are not convinced. William Pritchard, biographer of poets Randall Jarrell and Robert Frost, has been a professor of English at Amherst College since 1958.

"I was talking to a colleague today," Pritchard said, "and we both said we couldn't perceive in the students we teach any falling-off in what they had read."

Though he did not contest the NEA numbers, Pritchard suggested that the report's tone of impending doom (it warned, for example, that "at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century") might be a bit over the top.

"Robert Frost said that every age likes to think of itself as the worst," said Pritchard. "In an essay in 1935 called `Letter to the Amherst Student,' he wrote, `It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God.' " / A&E / Books / NEA study proves a difficult read for the book world

No comments:

Search This Blog