Are We On the Same Page?

"We’re Reading Again!” The story hit the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major newspapers in anticipation of the release on January 12, 2009, of a new study from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is titled by its conclusion: “Reading on the Rise.” In the report, NEA documents an increase in adult reading of literature, with the biggest increase in rates among those aged 18 to 24. Announcing the news, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said,

"At a time of immense cultural pessimism, the NEA is pleased to announce some important good news. Literary reading has risen in the U.S. for the first time in a quarter century. . . . This dramatic turnaround shows that the many programs now focused on reading, including our own Big Read, are working. Cultural decline is not inevitable."

When one digs a bit farther down into the numbers, though, one sees that the “rise” in reading is accounted for by an increase in the reading of fiction – both novels and short stories – while poetry and drama continue to see a decline in readership. And, too, the percentage of readers today is not yet at levels equal to that of 20-odd years ago. Still, any upward trend is cheering, and while these numbers may not yet signal the end of cultural decline – they suggest that literary collapse is not imminent.

Gioia credits reading promotion programs, especially the one-book community reading program that NEA adopted and branded as its “Big Read,” for the upward trend in reading. Other researchers focus on different outcomes from one-book reading programs. A three-year research project – Beyond the Book — based at the University of Birmingham, UK, but with international scope, looks at whether “mass reading events” bring people together and strengthen community. They include in these mass events Oprah’s Book Club in the States, the Richard and Judy club in the UK, NEA’s “Big Read,” or the many “One Book, One [fill the name of the city/town]” programs that operate in cities and towns across the U.S.

I am intrigued by the distance we’ve traveled since Nancy Pearl, as Executive Director of the Washington Center for the Book (WCB) at the Seattle Public Library, launched the first city-wide book group in 1998. WCB offered this initiative as a proposition, an experiment really, titled “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book.” To get Seattle reading that book (by Russell Banks), they created “toolkits” (their light-hearted term for reading and discussion guides) that they distributed city-wide for book groups to use, and had buttons made that said “I’m Reading [fill in book title].” They encouraged readers to wear the buttons so that they might meet other readers as they went about their daily lives. They brought the writer in for a series of appearances throughout the city as the reading cycle neared completion. And it must have worked because the program has been repeated nearly every year since. Now called “Seattle Reads,” the program has traveled the arc from proposition to institution, and its model has been spread throughout the country.

You can visit the web pages of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress where you will find a comprehensive list of the one-book programs that are ongoing in every state in the country. Several titling conventions are prominent among the programs. You will find many "Big Reads," of course, but you will also find "One Book, One Chicago" style titles, many "Seattle Reads" type names, and a series of On the Same Page programs, especially in Massachusetts.

There are quite a few claims captured in those programs names – that a mass reading event can unify and make one a city/town/state, that communities are reading, that reading together puts us on common ground. That is a lot to ask from a book. Our high expectations suggest just how much value we place on books and reading. And that’s a good thing. But I also think we need to be cautious so that we don’t turn our community reading programs into continuing education efforts or new great books initiatives with increasingly standardized and less locally specific content.

I understand the argument that if people are going to read only one book this year, then it might be nice if that book were one of the “great” books. It’s a paternalistic argument but one that I am not unsympathetic with. Still, one has to ask, if the great books are – for example – the “big” reads, does that make mysteries, thrillers, and – most importantly – new and untested or local writers little reads? Do we really want to go down that path toward hierarchies of reading?

The exploration of new and regional voices is what I fear we are most in danger of losing amidst the focus on the classic texts. The new or local book can be one of the great finds in reading, and the writers behind these books are often more than eager to get out into communities to talk with readers, making that exciting connection between reader and writer that can be so meaningful.

I rush to say that I support the community reading programs – and I admire the hard work and creative effort that community groups, especially libraries, put into delivering these programs. I also hasten to say that there is still time to apply for an NEA Big Read grant– though the deadline fast approaches on Feb 3rd. Overall, though, I hope that we find ways to maintain within these programs the freedom of choice that leads us to the least burdened encounters with the pleasures of the text and the joys that can derive from book discussion with our friends, with our neighbors, and with readers we haven’t yet met.

Author: Sharon Shaloo

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