Why Literature Matters Essay

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 . . . "

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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 America."

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 limited."

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 impoverished.

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.

Reading has always been double-edged. One of the first things we learn how to do, it is bound up with our relations to the institutions that mark our lives: family, school, a well-paying job. It is also one of the few things we do alone and for ourselves. It’s an acknowledged pleasure but the most complex of pleasures. Motives for reading may be as high or as low as any human action and can be qualified in myriad ways: we read for pleasure or power, to escape, to impress, to master, to have our security violated, to impose our will silently, to justify ourselves to ourselves or to be shaken, to find consolation for the injustice of the world in a story where virtue is rewarded. We may read with jaded distance or with too much closeness.

All these motives need to be taken into account when we consider the popularity of a book. Publishers do market research but we can never be sure what raises a book onto the best-seller lists. There are reasons to be suspicious of what people tell an interviewer, or reply to a survey when they are asked to rank their preferences rationally. If we can fool ourselves about how we read and why, why not fool others? Consider, as a case study, the phenomenon of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Last year, everyone seemed to be reading it. Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her years as an English professor in Iran describes the contraband culture of American literature that existed among a dwindling group of middle-class and educated Iranian women during the mid-nineties. Slowly driven from the universities by a bizarre array of disciplinary measures, teacher and students met discreetly to discuss LolitaDaisy MillerThe Great Gatsby, and other novels they had first studied in courses and then reread in xeroxed pamphlets (imports of foreign books were forbidden). Around pastries and coffee, shedding their veils and shapeless black clothes, they worried that their sessions might be reported to the police or that their parents, brothers, or husbands might disapprove and confine them to the house.

There are obvious reasons why a large number of Americans ought to be interested in such a tale. It confirms our sense of the importance of American culture to those who suffer from tyranny abroad. Our feelings of patriotism are aroused. One can imagine a high school course in which the teacher believes it his duty to impart a lesson about modern American civic values through Reading Lolita. Women who here might be corporate lawyers, teachers, or musicians are, in Iran, confined to their homes and their minds. This is injustice. There should be no accommodation with the Iranian regime. It is part of the book’s function to arouse this feeling in its non-Iranian readers. Although Nafisi does not insist on Nabokov as an anti-communist author, her choice of him solidifes the tenuous mental connections between our fight against the Soviet Union and our current two-front battle against both Sunni and Shiite theocracy. Reading Lolita becomes a kind of Darkness at Noon or 1984 for our time.

A memoir is not propaganda, however. We can imagine a better course, taught at the college level, which takes the book as a document and object of interest for the burgeoning field of transnational studies. “Transnationalism,” like globalization, implies a dissolution of national boundaries as the context in which literary meanings and judgments of value can be made. Ideally, the field of transnational studies serves as a corrective to the influence of the old blood-and-soil nationalists who founded most literature departments. In its best form, it can teach us about hidden influences. Did you know that medieval French poetry is actually a mix of Provençal and Bedouin love lyric imported by ninth-century Moorish invaders and further strengthened by cross-cultural encounters during the Crusades? But not everyone has the language skills and background for such work. As a result, most transnationalists study the uses of English and American literature in other non-English-speaking cultures. For these people, a memoir about Iranian women reading Nabokov, Fitzgerald, and Henry James will be a key text in the years to come.

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