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On the Importance of Reading

Gioia warns that as increasing numbers of Americans put down their

books, they also invest less in the nations civic and cultural life. In a
program moderated by writer Jewelle Gomez, Gioia calls for a revival in
reading, beginning in the schools.
DANA GIOIA Chair, National Endowment for the Arts
Monday April 10, 2006
Every 10 years the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) does a survey
among American households. Its the largest of its kind in the world. We take
17,000 households, which the U.S. Census Bureau matches to reflect the total
American population as of the previous years census. We interview those people
in their homes a very extensive interview about their participation in arts and
civics activities and we follow up with other phone interviews. This allows us to
judge in an objective way (the error rate is about two-tenths of 1 percent about
20 times the size of your normal national poll) how the arts are doing. We did this
a few years ago. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find what we found.
To summarize, reading has declined among every group of adult Americans:
Reading has declined among every group of adult Americans: every
age group, educational group, income group, region and race.
every age group, educational group, income group, region and race although
Asian reading is flat (the single number of several thousand in this report that is
actually directionally positive). In some case the declines have been precipitous.
This has been going on for 20 years, but the trends are getting worse, and the
worst declines are among younger American adults. In the last 20 years, younger
American adults have gone from being the people in our society who read the
most to the people who read the least. Reading proficiency has fallen among all
Americans, and it has fallen the worst among adults aged 18 to 24, 25 to 34. It
has fallen the worst among men, and, indeed, if you look at our study and other
studies, only about one-third of adult males are doing what we call literary
reading. Know that literary reading sounds much better than it is. We define
literary reading as any imaginative text essentially any novel, short story, poem
or dramatic work in a book, magazine, newspaper or online. If you carry a poem
in your wallet and you look at it once a year, we count you. If you have just
finished Thomas Manns Buddenbrooks in German for the third time, or youve
read one page of a Harlequin Romance and given up because its too hard, we
count you as equals. We are very egalitarian!
What you see for the first time in American history is that less than half of the
U.S. adult American population is reading literature. Im going to talk about what
the causes of the problem are, and then Ill talk about the consequences and the
To go into the data a little big further, we see that were producing the first
generation of educated people, in some cases college graduates, who no longer
become lifelong readers.This is disturbing for reasons above and beyond those
that a poet might be expected to bring to the podium. Literature awakens,
enlarges, enhances and refines our humanity in a way that almost nothing else
can. Franz Kafka once said that the book is the axe by which we break open the
frozen seas within us. That metaphor is very true. We tend, by our very nature, to
be encased in our own egos. What literature does nowhere more powerfully
than in fiction (the novel and the short story) is put us in the inner lives of other
people in the dailyness of their psychological, social, economic and imaginative
existence. This makes us feel, more intensely probably than anything else, the
reality of other points of view, of other lives. That is obviously in jeopardy if we
now have a society in which the majority of adults are no longer reading. But
there are other things that we can actually measure. Something seems to
happen with readers that does not happen with non-readers. I cannot
scientifically prove that its causal, but I can scientifically prove with a wearisome
amount of data that it is at the very least correlative.
If you are a reader, you are overwhelmingly more likely to engage in positive
social and civic behavior versus non-readers. If you read, youre 300 percent
more likely to go to the theater and museums, 200 percent more likely to go to
the movies, and over twice in some measures three times as likely to do
volunteer work or charity work. And the argument that this is a function of income
because the more education you have, the more likely you are to read; the
more education you have, the higher your income is isnt true. The poorest
group of American readers does volunteer work and charity work at twice the
level of the richest non-readers. You see other things that are rather surprising. If
you are a reader, youre more likely to exercise, more likely to go to sports
games, more likely to play amateur sports bowling or softball and much more
likely to be aware of and involved in your own community. There is a deep and
arguably statistical connection between readers and civic involvement. The kind
of communities that we want to live in are, by definition, communities of readers.
The kinds of citizens a democracy needs are readers. The interesting thing about
people who read versus people who dont read, is that they do exactly the same
things except that one group reads and the other one doesnt. Readers play
video games, watch television; they do these things, but they do them in a
balanced way, versus people who are, increasingly, simply passive consumers of
electronic entertainment. If you look at our data and the data of other studies, you
are almost compelled to believe that there is now a bifurcation in the American
population between one group, which takes an active stance towards managing
their own lives, and another group, which is increasingly passive. The passive
people come home, watch TV, play video games, go onto the Internet, talk on the
phone, go back to the TV, put a DVD in and then its time to go to bed. I
believe that there is something fundamentally intellectual and spiritual that
happens to readers through the combination of the sustained focused attention
that you bring to reading, the use of your imagination to create pictures of the
scenes, characters and situations, and also your use of memory to draw those
pictures out, versus being passive and having the images, pacing, tone and
everything given to you. This is a disturbing situation, and its not likely to get
better. Why isnt it likely to get better? This is rather scary. If you see whats
happening with pre-adults, you see the same kinds of declines among high
school students and eighth graders. You see this decline in the amount of
reading, the command of reading and in the ability to read at any complex level.
Literature awakens, enlarges, enhances and re!nes our humanity in a
way that almost nothing else can.
As a Californian, Im particularly ashamed. If you look at eighth graders,
California ranks 49th out of 50 states. If you look at fourth graders, we rank 48th. I
know all the excuses immigration and things like this but as a Mexican-
American Californian, I am ashamed. Our public education system is not doing
its job especially in this state, which once enjoyed one of the greatest public
school systems in the world. The problem is now at a tipping point. In the last 20
years, the number of adult readers in the United States has stayed the same.
The number of non-readers has increased by 40 million. There are now a few
more non-readers than readers. If we allow the problem to get much worse, the
better part of this cultural capacity for reading, magination, civic engagement and
human enlargement will be irrecoverable.
Why did it happen? First, something isnt happening in schools. Somehow, we
are not connecting reading with the expectation of pleasure and the sense that
reading is a necessary component of a life of self-realization, of exploration of
who you are and what your individual potential is. That used to be the goal of
high school and college education in some ways maybe quite modestly in high
school, but ambitiously in college. Now it seems we are increasingly trying to
focus on producing entry-level workers for a service economy. That is not the
same as producing free citizens for a democracy. Second, and this isnt
arguable, we are now surrounded by a great welter of electronic alternatives to
reading. About 20 years ago, the average American household had one TV, one
record player, one radio and maybe one phone. Now weve got two to three TVs,
two video games, two computers, countless phones (if you count both wired and
cell phones), DVDs, VCRs, the Internet, etc. Even when you leave the house,
you have your iPod, so theres now an opportunity or a risk depending on how
you want to define it of never cutting off this predetermined flow of electronic
entertainment, of which you are largely a passive consumer. speaking at The
Commonwealth Club, is that the media in our culture do not seriously discuss or
present reading or the rest of the arts. The talk shows of 30, 40 years ago
actually were talk shows; now they are opportunities for product placements of
new consumer goods. I was raised in an immigrant household where the adults
did not speak English. I would see Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg on television
inconceivable nowadays for a network show. This vision that the media gives
us of ourselves is narrower and more commercial than ever before. That is a
reflection of the culture at large, which does not honor reading, literature, the arts
and the imagination in a way designed to capture and develop someones
attention. If you went into a classroom of high school seniors or college freshmen
and asked them how many NBA players they could name, you might get the
whole league. How many baseball players? Youd get hundreds. How many hip-
hop artists? Youd get dozens, maybe over 100. How many movie stars? Youd
get countless names. Then ask them to name one living American painter,
sculptor, poet, dramatist, architect, philosopher, historian, theologian, biologist,
physicist or mathematician. Youd get nothing. These professions are not life
roles that we honor in our society, even by the simple act of paying attention and
acknowledging. Consequently, if you think of the role models for a young person
in this society, they are terribly, terribly limited to sports and entertainment (which
are really both forms of entertainment), and maybe a few public figures. That is a
failure of collective imagination. It is a frightening situation for our society to find
itself in. This diminishment of the possibilities of life through a diminishment of
public culture is leading to a diminishment of the very intellectual, imaginative,
cultural capacity of our citizenry on a broader level. This is a crisis. This is a
problem of the gravest nature for a democracy to face, because if we do not have
a majority of adult citizens who can actively manage their own lives and engage
with their own communities and the people and institutions around them, we are
a passive society.
How to fix the problem
What can be done? We have to do at least three things. First, we have to
acknowledge theres a problem. One of the most interesting things that
happened when the NEA released its Reading at Risk report is that leaders in
many of the fields that were affected basically denied that there was a problem.
They said, Everybody was doing a great job and everybody needed more
funding; its not my problem because were really doing one hell of a job here. In
psychobabble, thats called denial. I understand why public servants often ignore
or bend the truth for their parochial gain, but I do not think thats how problems
get solved. So the first thing we have to do is acknowledge that theres a
problem. If you dont believe it, drop me a line and I will give you so much
information that you will be sorry you ever asked. Second, we have to
acknowledge that to solve the problem, we have to do something different. We
cannot expect to solve a problem that is growing worse every day, every year, by
doing the same thing. I was in business for 15 years. (I guess Im the only person
in the world who can say they went to Stanford Business School to be a poet.)
And I needed a day job, so I worked in corporate America. I learned many
valuable lessons working in big business, but one of them and this is
something that every businessperson, educator and arts administrator should
recognize is that if you have the wrong solution, the wrong strategy, you can
spend and spend and spend, and it still wont work. If you have the right strategy,
the right idea, you see the results almost immediately. We have to understand
that there is something about our educational system in regard to reading that is
broken, and it includes colleges and graduate schools, because thats where you
are seeing the huge, huge drop-offs.
Third, we have to try new things. There are probably thousands of things that will
work, because what we are really talking about is how you engage the attention
of a younger generation and the rest of us in the pleasure and potential of
reading. The National Endowment for the Arts is trying one idea, on a scale that
nothing but a national governmental agency could manage. On May 9, we will
announce a civic reading program called The Big Read. Its based on a
program invented in Seattle 10 years ago, where they encouraged people in the
to read the same book. The best thing I can say in defense of the NEAs idea of
The Big Read is that we didnt invent it! In fact, we threw out a couple of ideas
that wed invented because this idea struck us as better. It recognizes something
that intellectuals often forget, which is that most people read to be closer to other
people, to understand other people, to understand other situations. They want to
read a book that other people are reading. They want to have a conversation
about it. They want to be able to share and explore their experience with other
people. Seattle is a town of around 2 million people. Seattle judges their program
successful if they can get at least 5,000 people to read the book. Often they are
able to do far better than that, but thats their minimum threshold. We felt that if
you took this idea, which has now been tried by 200 cities, and you developed it
in a way that no individual community might be able to, why couldnt you get
50,000, 100,000, or a quarter of a million people to read it? Were developing
with an ever increasing list of books, television material, radio shows, print
material, educational material and public advertising a partnership that can go
between many, many institutions. In the community in Topeka, where we tested it
with Zora Neale Hurstons Their Eyes Were Watching God, we had 153
community partner organizations. We started with the libraries, mayors office,
schools, newspaper, public radio station, public TV station, chamber of
commerce and private-sector bookstores. We included groups such as
retirement communities. We brought in everything from allnight readings at the
Krispy Kreme to public events that recreate the milieu in this case the Harlem
Renaissance at all the branch libraries. And weve had enormous public
reception. In Topeka, one of the things they were proudest of is bringing the
black community and the white community to the same event in equal numbers.
They were able to not only build readers, but a more inclusive and balanced
community. I would encourage you to do at least three things: Say, Hey, we want
to be part of The Big Read. Id love that. Id encourage you to say, The Big
Read is the stupidest idea Ive ever heard; I can do something better and
come up with another idea. And the third is basically to say, Forget about the
civic level; I have a whole different avenue to explore. But unless we become
engaged in addressing this problem, unless we feel the civic dimension of this is
worth preserving, it wont happen.
Q: How does the Internet factor into the measurement of literacy? How will
proposed new immigration laws perhaps a"ect literacy?
A: The Internet is obviously an enormously influential new medium that is
changing the way we communicate. I have enormous enthusiasm for much of
what the Internet does, but all of the research that we have been able to use
(most of it coming from Internet companies themselves) indicates that people do
not read on the Internet. They take information, but in a largely non-linear
fashion. They pull something from here and there. The Internet is an
extraordinary, powerful tool of communication, but it does operate, cognitively,
rather differently from reading in the same way that television does from
reading. The Internet is changing the nature of the American attention span,
especially among the younger generation.
Now for immigration: When we measure reading, we measure reading in all
languages not just English. Obviously, immigration largely brings people who
are economically disadvantaged, so you would expect lower levels of literacy and
reading from them than perhaps the national norm, but the fact is that this has
always been a nation of immigrants.
My family migrated from Sicily, on the one hand, and Mexico on the other, and
they were all dirt poor. I dont think this is a new American phenomenon, but I do
think that, for whatever reason, we are handling the educational and literary
integration of these new populations less well. It is interesting that the traditional
measure of literacy is fourth-grade education. If you had completed fourth grade,
you were literate. We now know that thats no longer true. But both my
grandfathers had only completed the equivalent of a fourth grade education
one in a poor part of Sicily, the other in a poor part of the Southwest and they
were both lifelong readers, so I do think there is something not happening now.
Q: As an artist, how do you deal with the loss of time from poetry in being an
A: In my dark moods, it is a bitter loss; in my brighter moods, I think it is a
worthwhile sacrifice. I did not want this job and I refused to interview for it. They
chose another wonderful man named Michael Hammond to be chairman. He
died after eight days.
If you have had my job, you will know why. One of the reasons I didnt want to do
it is that having spent so many years working and having a day job, and only
writing at nights and weekends, I was very protective about my time as a writer.
But somebody needs to do the job. Somebody needed to rebuild the NEA as a
major public institution after 20 years of culture wars. Unfortunately, that was me.
Q: What are your re#ections on the role of the arts, particularly theater, in
A: I dont see any way that someone can be educated unless the arts play a role.
This is not a novel idea. Throughout history, across cultures, the arts have played
a major role in education for several reasons. First, the arts guide you by
pleasure, introducing a component of delight above and beyond the arithmetic or
spelling class. Second, one of the problems in our education right now is that
there are only three ways for a guy to find a social life: go into sports, join a gang
or try to be an A-student. Most kids are not going to go into sports, theyre not
going to be A-students and they dont want to join gangs. But if you bring a very
awkward, alienated 14-year-old into the production of a play, suddenly he
discovers there are many other awkward, alienated 14-year-olds, and when they
get together they really have a good time. And they not only develop a skill which
earns them applause which is a nice thing for a kid but they also find a better
sense of themselves both as individuals and as social beings. Its the same
thing with music, dance, the school paper, the literary magazine and studio art.
We need to give our kids multiple ways of discovering what they are best at, as
well as multiple ways of discovering who they are and where they are going. The
more avenues we cut off, the more kids were going to lose and its appalling
how many kids we lose. The high school graduation rate in the United States
now is about 71 percent and that actually inflates the numbers, because it
doesnt count the kids who drop out after ninth grade. You see it in the
incarceration rates and similar things. A kid that you see in a school production of
a play, in the library or in a high school band is probably not a kid youll see in
Q: Do you think college students have been really hammered by the
administration, and that No Child Left Behind has been left behind? What would
you suggest our president read to make him more in touch or connected or
A: I would not presume to tell the president what to read. What I will say is that
No Child Left Behind has been surprisingly effective. Children involved in the
program have significantly increased their reading and math scores. African-
American children most of all, Hispanic children next and white children, too. The
problem is that that is the most basic measurement of educational success. We
need to go back to the initial legislation of No Child Left Behind, which identified
the arts as a core component of American education at all levels. Take the
success thats been built into the reading and the math and work towards a
complete education. That is one of my primary goals, even though, as chairman
of the NEA, I do not have any statutory sway over curriculum most of which is
still a state or local issue. Insofar as Im involved in education, one of my chief
goals is to bring the arts back into the core curriculum.
The ability to teach the arts and to bring people into the arts exists within most
communities. We have 2 million Americans who define their career their
economic status as artists. This country is full of underemployed artists: actors
who are only acting a couple of weeks a year; musicians who are not working
most of the time; writers who need a day job of some sort. We could staff all of
the public schools in the United States! I believe working artists would bring both
enthusiasm and expertise to the issues.
Q: Where is your plan to bring productions of Shakespearean plays to the U.S.
armed forces?
A: Its actually happened. One of the programs that I launched when I first came
to the NEA was a program called Shakespeare in American Communities. What
we tried to do was look at the arts not as all these disconnected things, but as a
kind of ecosystem with ARTA, actors, directors, theater companies, the people
who present the theater companies, audiences, younger audiences, students,
their teachers and see if we could create a program that went across that. So
far, 47 theater companies have toured 1,100 communities mostly mid-size and
smaller communities that dont have Equity theater. Theyve reached several
thousand schools, and we have brought 1 million kids mostly high school;
some junior high school kids to their first production of Shakespeare. For 70
percent, its the first time they have seen a play. It also means they can see the
play they are studying all 50 states mandate Shakespeare to be studied in high
school. Weve also brought free educational materials to 12 million kids in the
classrooms. While this was going on, we were able to talk to the U.S.
Department of Defense. The argument I made was that we have almost 4 million
Americans that are in either the military or military families. Most of them live in
relatively isolated rural communities. We have the oldest, best-educated and
best-trained military in our history, and what are we bringing them? Country
Western music, rock bands, movies and, as one senator put it, girlie shows the
USO. Im all for Country Western music, rock bands, movies and the USO, but
couldnt we bring them something else? We were able to get the Department of
Defense to give us $1 million to bring a couple of theater companies on tour to
military bases and the schools. It was a wonderful thing. We were able to give
actors work and reach a new audience. Now we have 24 opera companies
touring military bases and performing gala evenings two thirds opera and one-
third Broadway. We are playing to capacity audiences. We are turning people
away. At Camp Lejeune we had 16,000 people who up for the concert. One of
the most important things the arts can do is create conversations across
societies, with groups that wouldnt meet otherwise. Its good for the actors, good
for the troops, good for the kids. Im particularly proud of this, and Im particularly
proud that the U.S. Department of Defense gave us the money to do it. Its all
Q: Many years ago students learned classic poetry by memorizing and reciting in
class. Do you think the decline of this has created a lack of interest in poetry and
a lack of ability to write poetry?
A: Yes. That is one of the reasons poetry became less popular. Ill tell you why.
There are many ways of teaching an art form. Over the last 50 years we have
been teaching poetry as a problematic, difficult text that you had to unravel and
explain. Some poems are difficult texts you want to unravel and explain, but
poetry is primarily a performative art. There is a very holistic thrill about getting
up and reciting a poem this great construction of language of emotion and
imagery and bringing it into the center of your being.
As a teacher, Ive noticed that you have students who really like to puzzle things
out and write the papers, but there are also kids that are terribly disruptive. When
you give them a performative assignment, sometimes your class clown becomes
your class star and you bring a whole different energy into the class. I play the
two types off of each other the people that are performing and people that are
analyzing. It makes for a much more interesting class and it gives more people
more chances at excellence, more chances for participation. Were doing a
national poetry recitation contest this month. We have a quarter of a million U.S.
high school kids that are competing. We are having our state finals over the next
two weeks. Next month we will have the finals in Washington. Well be giving
$70,000 in scholarships to the winners, and we also give money to the library of
every high school that puts somebody in the national finals.
Q: Have the poetry slams, which have been a rising phenomenon among young
people, helped poetry?
A: Yes. There has been an explosion of popular poetry in the last quarter-
century. You see it in rap and in the hip-hop culture. You see it with poetry slams.
You see it with cowboy poetry. You see it with cafs and bars and bookstores
taking poetry outside of the university. This is all good. The more diversity that
we have, the more avenues we have to bring people into the art form. What I
particularly like about poetry slams is that they do something that was
unthinkable, un-genteel and rude: have a winner. The funny thing is that all the
Greek arts be they drama, poetry or athletics were done in competition,
because the Greeks felt the drive for individual excellence was best stimulated
through competition. Americans must believe that, too, or they wouldnt be
watching American Idol. I dont see any other reason to watch it! And dont feel
bad if you lose the competition. Remember next time you have a manuscript
rejected that Sophocles lost with Oedipus Rex! Theres hope even for people
who dont win.
Q: Can you talk a little about the last eight years in regard to the federal funding
of the NEA?
A: The NEA was created in 1965, which means we are enjoying our 40th
anniversary this year. It was created at the end of the Great Society program. It
was a relatively small program, but $7 million was seen more as a committee that
gave a few large grants to distinguished institutions. Surprisingly, the person who
turned it into a major institution was Richard Nixon. He grew it 40-fold because
he felt it brought people together in a divided nation. Over the next 10 to 15
years, the NEA grew at a very, very high level. Our highest funding was $177
million, which would be the equivalent of about $400 million-plus today. During
the 90s, in the culture wars, the whole thing fell apart and the NEA was literally a
few votes from being abolished. In the mid-90s, the budget was cut to $99
million and half the staff eliminated. Forty percent of the money was given
directly to the states, and it became marginalized. Im happy to say that we have
been able to grow the budget for each of the last four years, and weve launched
the largest initiatives in our history. We now have a bipartisan majority in both
houses and, over the last three and half years, weve had nothing but success.
We are at the beginning of another really great era for the NEA, but it has been
very, very difficult. Previously, the NEA never understood that as a public
agency, you have to communicate to the public the value of what you are doing.
For nearly 40 years, the NEA let the critics of the institution dictate the public
conversation about the institution. The most important thing that Ive done at the
NEA has been to change the public conversation about the funding of the arts
and public arts agencies to bring the real issues before the public.
Q: Do you feel youve been successful in communicating the importance of the
arts to the White House, which doesnt seem that supportive?
A: No, we have been successful. Contrary to that question, we have very strong
support for the endowment from the White House. The problem really is that
there were 20 years of congressional problems that needed to be resolved.
Q: What is the most in#uential book you have read since being at the NEA, and
which living poet have you most recently read?
A: Im such a compulsive reader. Since Ive come to Washington, Ive stopped
sleeping, so I just read book after book after book. The book that Im proudest to
have finally read is War and Peace. The finest new novel that Ive read is Mario
Vargas Llosas The War of the End of the World, which is an absolute
masterpiece. Im hard-pressed to say what the best book would be I read so
many. The poet that Ive read most recently is a woman who lives in Greece
named A.E. Stallings. Her wonderful new book of poetry has a terrible title,
Hapax, which is apparently a classical grammatical term for a word which
appears only once in the history of a language. The poetry is just superb. I ended
up re-reading it within about a week.
Q: Do you have any feelings about the need for popular entertainers to spur the
interest in reading?
A: It is important for public figures to talk about the importance of reading in their
lives. It is enormously important, because these people have the publics ear. If
they talk about why reading is important in their lives, it is compelling. With The
Big Read, were trying to bring surprising people into the discussion about books
not just literary people.
Q: Do you have one of your own poems youd like to read this evening?
A: This is a short poem only six lines long. Its about how the lives we lead are
almost invisible to anyone but ourselves because they are so private. Theyre
internal. The poem is called Unsaid. So much of what we live goes on inside
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches Of unacknowledged love are no less
real For having passed unsaid. What we conceal Is always more than what we
dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead. This program was made possible by the
generous support of the Bernard Osher Foundation.