Questions Worth Answering

So, whether you buy the arguments in the latest NEA report about the state of reading or not, I find this question by Dana Gioia as posed in the relevant Washington Post article to be a good one:

"What we’re trying to do is say: These are the facts. This is a framework to understand the issues. Let’s talk about it," Gioia said. And the key question is: What are the consequences if America becomes "a nation in which reading is a minority activity?"

My answer in a word would be: BAD. But that’s only because I’m too busy to rattle on. What do you guys think?

5 thoughts on “Questions Worth Answering”

  1. my only comment at this point would be to caution ppl against using the term “minority” in any context. especially in this one.
    the article connects reading with (counterintuitively? really?) exercising more and being more healthy and all these other things, but doesn’t make the point that reading doesn’t *cause* exercise and health and other good things, but rather, higher class and economic status (both, because the two are not the same thing) cause reading, exercise and health, travel, etc.
    which means that reading rates are correlated to class: to be specific, higher socioeconomic class. which means that the “minority” we’re talking about here is privileged people.
    there’s already a tendency for the literate and the artistic to position themselves as an endangered and nearly oppressed minority, and this is usually done with little to no recognition of the massive amounts of privilege required to put one person through an MFA program. gioia is not immune to this blindness himself, smart as he is.
    that’s all i have to say at this time.

  2. Definitely, Claire — the biggest (& worst) implication to any of this that I can see is that if it’s true and it stays on the current course this all continues to widen/worsen the cultural and class gaps that already exist. And I don’t know how we come back from that as a society. I fully believe that’s a substantial part of the debate that Gioia is attempting to foster; at least, I hope it is. The broader definition of reading they used this time out seems to indicate that’s the case. I’m assuming the report’s full complexity is not captured by this relatively brief article, and would be shocked if there’s not an acknowledgement of precisely what you’re saying.
    Speaking just as somebody who’s had to interview people for jobs that require a lot of writing, it’s getting harder and harder to find even college grads that are decent writers (or readers). I haven’t looked at the full report, but everything in the summary seems to gel largely with reality as I’ve observed it. And I’m still naive enough to believe that if we really could figure out how to increase the number of good readers and writers across the economic spectrum, it would have a real impact in lessening the more harmful effects of class inequality… or at least lead to fewer misspellings on restaurant menus. 🙂

  3. I suppose my immediate reaction is to toss out the old chestnut about attention span issues, and then try to relate it to civic discourse.
    I would argue that most people who read for pleasure are more capable of taking in large amounts of information, are more capable of sifting through a large number of viewpoints to isolate objective content from opinion, and are more capable of understanding abstract arguments.
    (I say “most” to head off any “well, people who read X are just as bad as the TV watchers” arguments.)
    These are the essential skills to understand what’s going on in our society and react to it. Operating at the soundbite level renders you marginalized and literally incapable of reaching an informed decision.
    Since I’m asserting that, I’m obviously also asserting that a reduction in the level of these activities–especially to the point where people don’t develop these basic skills and the minimal level of mental discipline required–will result in a populace that is more easily led and mislead.
    And that, of course, ties nicely into your point about reinforcing and extending the gaps between strata in North American society today.
    I’ll go even further though, and assert that people who read fiction have extensive exposure to different ways of experiencing the world. To a large extent, reading fiction is all about seeing the world from another perspective, or putting yourself in someone else’s place. That ability to see beyond your own relatively narrow experience, and that training to at least understand the viewpoints of others, is something we can’t afford to lose. The world is already to clannish for us to lose anything that helps us move in the direction of widening our definition of “we”, you know?

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