Big Read, big waste

Jim Henley's poems and reviews have appeared in the Hudson Review and Reason, among other journals. He runs the weblog Unqualified Offerings (

If you blew off your summer reading lists in school, the government is here to help. Alarmed by the proportional decline in reading for pleasure among Americans, the National Endowment for the Arts has expanded its Big Read initiative, which is designed to “restore reading to the center of American culture.” Big Read began as a pilot project in 2006 and is similar to the "city reads" projects across the nation that began in the late 1990s.

It won't cost much money, as governments reckon things. The NEA plans to disburse about $1.6 million in grants during the first half of 2008. By the end of 2008, the total expense for the Big Read, including the pilot program, should be less than $8 million. We can surely all agree that that's a small price to pay to "restore reading to the center of American culture." Indeed, with a price tag this low, it's feels almost peevish to ask if the program will actually accomplish anything.

The NEA knows that reading has slipped because of its own survey from 2004, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” and a 2007 follow-up, "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence." The reports find 20-year declines in what the NEA calls "literary reading" among all demographic categories. It defines "literary reading" generously: "any novels, short stories, poetry or plays" -- anything fictional or poetic. "Executioner" novels count as much as "The Corrections"; Dan Brown no less than Tony Kushner. "Reading at Risk" concluded that fewer than half of all Americans read stories or poems for pleasure in 2002.

A separate Associated Press-Ipsos poll from 2007 found more readers, though AP-Ipsos counts nonfiction and Bible-only readers. And between 1982 and 2002 -- the comparison points in "Reading at Risk" -- came the boom in so-called literary nonfiction, the decade when ambitious twentysomethings began trying to write not moving poems or compelling stories but salable memoirs. The sheer number of NEA-defined literary readers remained constant at about 132 million Americans -- a smaller percentage of a larger population. But let's not quibble. Reading for pleasure was once a majority pursuit, and now it isn't.

I feel bittersweet about this myself. I'm writing a novel. I've published poems. Nothing feels quite so discomfiting to me as walking into someone's home and realizing that there is not a single book to be found in it. But nearly everything that was around in 1982 is less central than it used to be: broadcast television, the Big Three automakers, the major record labels. And in the February Harper's, Ursula K. Le Guin suggests the larger pattern: For much of history, hardly anyone read, and even fewer read for pleasure rather than necessity. Then, for a while, many people read. (Le Guin sees "a high point of reading in the United States from around 1850 to about 1950 -- call it the century of the book.") Now fewer do.

Against the long pull of this tide, the NEA's Big Read program looks like mere sentimentality. "Each community event lasts approximately one month," the Big Read materials state, "and includes a kick-off event to launch the program locally, ideally attended by the mayor and other local luminaries." Even though the mayor probably reads nothing but fundraising memos himself.

The list of books is unobjectionable -- Job One given the NEA's vexed history with Republicans. It really does look like your 11th-grader's summer reading list: from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Amy Tan. Who could complain? But who could be inspired? Oprah's much-maligned book list is more adventurous. The major chains and remaining independent bookstores sponsor book clubs across the country. Publishers have been making reading group materials available for selected titles for more than a decade.

America has not lacked for opportunities to read "A Farewell to Arms" or "The Great Gatsby.” According to the NEA's own figures, pleasure reading has been declining (in percentage terms) despite all these public and private reading drives. The idea that a few million dollars and speeches by a few hundred mayors are going to make pleasure reading "central" again is too silly for, well, words.

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