In 1935, President Roosevelt decided to give unemployed writers a job. “Why not?” he said. “They are human beings. They have to live.” That might not have been the kind of ringing endorsement writers were hoping for, but hey, there was a depression on. The Federal Writers Project, a program of the WPA, put writers to work on guidebooks, histories and other literary works that would somehow contribute to civic life and keep writers off the dole.
It was the largest federal literature program ever — until now. The National Endowment for the Arts claims that its program, The Big Read, surpasses even the WPA. The difference is that they’re spending money not to allow writers to write, but to encourage readers to read. Last weekend I saw the chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia, talk about the program at the Sonoma County Book Festival. His insights into the reading habits of the average American were both familiar and terrifying.
Just over one third of adult males read literature. (By “literature,” we’re talking about novels, collections of short stories, poetry, plays, etc. We’re not talking about newspapers, assigned reading from a teacher or an employer, the backs of cereal boxes, or text messages.) Overall, only 46.7 percent of the adult population reads any literature at all. Only 56 percent of adults read books of any kind. And as expected, the decline is even more dramatic among young people, people with less education and people of color.
Why does this matter? Gioia made a compelling argument. Reading stimulates the imagination in a way that television and the Internet do not. It requires active engagement. It requires us to sit quietly, pay attention and engage in a sustained narrative for several hours or several days. And by placing ourselves in the middle of someone else’s life, someone we might never meet and never have the opportunity to know and understand, it helps us to develop empathy. Books require us to care about someone other than ourselves. And unlike most of the other media we encounter, books are not trying to sell us anything. Reading a book allows us to step away from the culture of consumption entirely.
And if those lofty ideas aren’t enough, Gioia had even more data to share. People who read are more than twice as likely as non-readers to do volunteer or charity work. They’re more likely to go to art museums and performances. They’re even more likely to go to a baseball game. This is even true at the lowest income levels — low-income people who read are far more likely to be engaged in their community than their peers who don’t read. “People talk about getting lost in a book or escaping into the pages of a book,” Gioia said, “but the opposite is true. People who read are more connected with the world than those who don’t.”
The NEA has decided to do something about this problem. Their program, The Big Read, gives grants and educational materials to communities who choose to read one of a dozen or so literary classics. Although these citywide reading programs are nothing new, having the NEA’s support can help get the word out. Gioia hopes that by having an entire community read the same book at the same time, literature will become a staple of water cooler talk and non-readers will become readers. The agency plans to conduct in-depth studies in a few communities to see if the project works.
Of course, the audience at the Sonoma County Book Festival was not the one that needed convincing. And if you’ve read this far, you probably don’t need convincing, either. The holidays will be upon us soon, and I’ll roll out my perennial plea to stop in at a local independent bookstore and buy books for everyone on your holiday gift list. Meanwhile, there are a few literary events coming up that you won’t want to miss:
On Friday, Sept. 28 , from 7 to 9 p.m., Natasha Wing will sign copies of her new book at Northtown Books in Arcata. Go to Bed, Monster! is a very charming picture book for readers-to-be, ages two through four. Her fan base is encouraged to wear their pajamas to the party, where there will be coloring, cake and books in abundance. I’ll be buying several copies for the crayon-wielders in my life, and I think the book is going to be a big hit, so go stock up early.
Also at Northtown on Oct. 12 , Jaimee Wriston Colbert will be discussing her new book, Dream Lives of Butterflies , as part of Arts! Arcata. Colbert teaches at SUNY-Binghamton University, and she’s the author of two other books and the winner of the Willa Cather Award for fiction. The novel is a collection of linked stories about the have-nots at the end of the affluent 1990s in America. It’s a lovely, warm and funny book that’s grounded in nature in a way that is subtle and surprising. Go check it out.
Finally, from Oct. 17-20 , a couple dozen children’s authors will descend on Humboldt County for the Humboldt County Children’s Author Festival. If you’ve got kids in school, they’ll probably meet one of these authors that week. There will also be a book sale and a chance to meet the authors. Check www.authorfest.org for more details.