[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: Why literature matters

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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
    the top.

    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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