Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

CROSSROADS COMMENT--"Reading at Risk" NEA Survey Is DOA

In 1933, Nazi’s piled books in a street in Berlin and set them on fire. Near that spot today is a memorial, a plaque and a window at ground level. Look down through the window and you will see a space lined with empty bookshelves.

Is it time to start building memorials in front of the schools and libraries of the nation similar to the burned books memorial in Berlin? If we did, peering through their plexiglass windows you would see well-stocked shelves of books on the edges of the cave space. But flickering light from highly polished television and computer monitors in the center of the space would reveal that the books on the shelves are covered in dust, unread.

Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America” is the title of a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report issued July 2004. Among the conclusions in the report: “‘Reading at Risk’ is testimony that a cultural heritage is disappearing, especially among younger people [18-24].” Another finding: “The percentage of U. S. adults reading literature dropped from 56.4 percent in 1982 to 46.7 percent in 2002 . . . . ” “Reading is Routed” would better fit the significance of what is smothered in this timid report.

Timidity is infectious. What was the response in the public square when the storm flag of Risk was sent up the NEA’s very short flagpole?

There was an uninspired flurry of commentary, but nothing smelling of serious concern. From a few professional literary critics I read or heard, there was smug tsk, tsking of the “There always have been readers and non-readers and there always will be” variety. National Public Radio did a standard five minute summary and commentary. There were short mentions in a few of the newspapers I read.

The television news-entertainment shows did what television news-entertainment shows do best, they devoted thirty breathless seconds to the report. Ads for the latest over-the-counter wonder drugs “you should ask your doctor about” followed. Time devoted to the NEA "Risk" report was equal to what it takes to read a haiku poem; time allotted to the commercial was what it takes to read (though not comprehend or appreciate) a Shakespeare sonnet.

TV producers wouldn’t argue over this allocation of air time. Shakespeare’s genius may serve as a home remedy antidote for attention deficit disorder, but what did the Bard ever do for acid reflux or the botttom line? And no visuals!

But wait, it turns out that there are visuals. Open “Reading at Risk: A Survey . . . ” and you find page after page of charts and tables. By my count, forty-three tables and charts stomp around in the forty-seven pages of the report. Boxed graphics rise out of the text like a herd of pachyderms escaped from the circus. They’re a leathery species, all dusty and glaring. Like the readers of this survey, they are prone to wandering about in search of stimulating nourishment.

Please recall, the report is titled “Reading at Risk.” Most readers will feel very much at risk when they run across the strands of argument and fact tied to “Multiple Logistic Regressions” and “Correlation Analysis of Predictor Variables.” I guess the assumption here is that when a nation’s print culture is disappearing it’s time to put on our sleeve garters and green eye shade and get down to business. I grant that if you wrinkle your brow and stay with this report long enough you will conclude, yeah, looks like “Risk” to me.

Unfortunately, those clicking sounds you hear in the prose of this report are not ideas and facts making urgent connections. No, just computer keys tapping out another finely calibrated, bloodless calculation. Even dedicated supporters of reading will push this study aside, put off by its bland worship of statistical methodology and the resulting narrowing literalism. Needless to say, should aliterates randomly access “Reading at Risk” they will be reaching for their Game Boys, cell phones, and iPods faster than you can say “multicollinearity.”

Shouldn’t Risk be delivered with at least a modicum of pizazz? I’m not saying give us stand-up comedian bits or cliff-hanger coyness. But asking that a report on literary reading be written in prose, in an arresting prose style, doesn’t seem an excessive request.

Why was the job of awakening the public to the collapse of a heritage, the imminent dissolving of a habit of mind, the fast fading of a source of solace and fancy in our lives turned over to Barteleby the Scrivener’s compliant colleagues? Why was it assumed that the only kind of “hard” evidence worth placing before the public consists of numbers banked up, ranked into neat columns, filling pages like so many digital tombstones?

There was a time when poets, novelists and essayists at least helped to serve as our guides in matters of concern and feeling. Does anyone at the NEA remember when the crafted subtleties of language on the page guided understanding and motivation? Literary reading helps carry thought to reasoned conclusions, opens the imagination to the wondrous strange, and lifts the spirit to fanciful and deliciously dangerous heights. “Reading at Risk” does little in the way of carrying, opening or lifting anything.

Poets, Wordsworth’s unacknowledged legislators of the world, can do better than this. One poet in particular should do better, and soon.

Dana Gioia, the Director of the NEA, is a wonderful poet. The man can write. In the Preface to the report he says: “print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability–and the many sorts of human continuity it allows–would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.” Please note: Not a single multiple logistic regression formula was required to cast the shadow of the grave truths in these words.

Mr. Gioia’s NEA should be at work right now on a companion volume to “Reading at Risk: A Survey . . . .” We need something like “The Risks of Not Reading,” and it needs to be written with the conviction and heat literary artists bring to their craft.

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