[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: Why literature matters
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Mon Apr 18 17:34:25 UTC 2005
Why literature matters
Good books help make a civil society
By Dana Gioia | April 10, 2005
In 1780 Massachusetts patriot John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail,
outlining his vision of how American culture might evolve. ''I must
study politics and war," he prophesied, so ''that our sons may have
liberty to study mathematics and philosophy." They will add to their
studies geography, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, he
continued, so that their children may enjoy the ''right to study
painting, poetry, music . . . "
Adams's bold prophecy proved correct. By the mid 20th century, America
boasted internationally preeminent traditions in literature, art,
music, dance, theater, and cinema.
But a strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past
quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college
attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously,
the interest young Americans showed in the arts -- and especially
literature -- actually diminished.
According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a
population study designed and commissioned by the National Endowment
for the Arts (and executed by the US Bureau of the Census), arts
participation by Americans has declined for eight of the nine major
forms that are measured. (Only jazz has shown a tiny increase -- thank
you, Ken Burns.) The declines have been most severe among younger
adults (ages 18-24). The most worrisome finding in the 2002 study,
however, is the declining percentage of Americans, especially young
adults, reading literature.
That individuals at a time of crucial intellectual and emotional
development bypass the joys and challenges of literature is a
troubling trend. If it were true that they substituted histories,
biographies, or political works for literature, one might not worry.
But book reading of any kind is falling as well.
That such a longstanding and fundamental cultural activity should slip
so swiftly, especially among young adults, signifies deep
transformations in contemporary life. To call attention to the trend,
the Arts Endowment issued the reading portion of the Survey as a
separate report, ''Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in
The decline in reading has consequences that go beyond literature. The
significance of reading has become a persistent theme in the business
world. The February issue of Wired magazine, for example, sketches a
new set of mental skills and habits proper to the 21st century,
aptitudes decidedly literary in character: not ''linear, logical,
analytical talents," author Daniel Pink states, but ''the ability to
create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and
opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative." When asked what kind
of talents they like to see in management positions, business leaders
consistently set imagination, creativity, and higher-order thinking at
Ironically, the value of reading and the intellectual faculties that
it inculcates appear most clearly as active and engaged literacy
declines. There is now a growing awareness of the consequences of
nonreading to the workplace. In 2001 the National Association of
Manufacturers polled its members on skill deficiencies among
employees. Among hourly workers, poor reading skills ranked second,
and 38 percent of employers complained that local schools inadequately
taught reading comprehension.
Corporate America makes similar complaints about a skill intimately
related to reading -- writing. Last year, the College Board reported
that corporations spend some $3.1 billion a year on remedial writing
instruction for employees, adding that they ''express a fair degree of
dissatisfaction with the writing of recent college graduates." If the
21st-century American economy requires innovation and creativity,
solid reading skills and the imaginative growth fostered by literary
reading are central elements in that program.
The decline of reading is also taking its toll in the civic sphere. In
a 2000 survey of college seniors from the top 55 colleges, the Roper
Organization found that 81 percent could not earn a grade of C on a
high school-level history test. A 2003 study of 15- to 26-year-olds'
civic knowledge by the National Conference of State Legislatures
concluded, ''Young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship
. . . and their appreciation and support of American democracy is
It is probably no surprise that declining rates of literary reading
coincide with declining levels of historical and political awareness
among young people. One of the surprising findings of ''Reading at
Risk" was that literary readers are markedly more civically engaged
than nonreaders, scoring two to four times more likely to perform
charity work, visit a museum, or attend a sporting event. One reason
for their higher social and cultural interactions may lie in the kind
of civic and historical knowledge that comes with literary reading.
Unlike the passive activities of watching television and DVDs or
surfing the Web, reading is actually a highly active enterprise.
Reading requires sustained and focused attention as well as active use
of memory and imagination. Literary reading also enhances and enlarges
our humility by helping us imagine and understand lives quite
different from our own.
Indeed, we sometimes underestimate how large a role literature has
played in the evolution of our national identity, especially in that
literature often has served to introduce young people to events from
the past and principles of civil society and governance. Just as more
ancient Greeks learned about moral and political conduct from the
epics of Homer than from the dialogues of Plato, so the most important
work in the abolitionist movement was the novel ''Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Likewise our notions of American populism come more from Walt
Whitman's poetic vision than from any political tracts. Today when
people recall the Depression, the images that most come to mind are of
the travails of John Steinbeck's Joad family from ''The Grapes of
Wrath." Without a literary inheritance, the historical past is
In focusing on the social advantages of a literary education, however,
we should not overlook the personal impact. Every day authors receive
letters from readers that say, ''Your book changed my life." History
reveals case after case of famous people whose lives were transformed
by literature. When the great Victorian thinker John Stuart Mill
suffered a crippling depression in late-adolescence, the poetry of
Wordsworth restored his optimism and self-confidence -- a ''medicine
for my state of mind," he called it.
A few decades later, W.E.B. DuBois found a different tonic in
literature, an escape from the indignities of Jim Crow into a world of
equality. ''I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not," DuBois
observed. ''Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and
Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls."
Literature is a catalyst for education and culture.
The evidence of literature's importance to civic, personal, and
economic health is too strong to ignore. The decline of literary
reading foreshadows serious long-term social and economic problems,
and it is time to bring literature and the other arts into discussions
of public policy. Libraries, schools, and public agencies do noble
work, but addressing the reading issue will require the leadership of
politicians and the business community as well.
Literature now competes with an enormous array of electronic media.
While no single activity is responsible for the decline in reading,
the cumulative presence and availability of electronic alternatives
increasingly have drawn Americans away from reading.
Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is
a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great
many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans
lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and
independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free,
innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.
Dana Gioia is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
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