TOPICS > Education

A Look at Whether Americans Are Reading Enough

August 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Dana Gioia is the first poet ever to head the National Endowment for the Arts. A Californian of Mexican and Italian descent, he was the first in his family to attend college, and then spent several years in the business world as a marketing executive before turning to full-time writing. He’s since published award- winning criticism, poetry collections and anthologies.

Appointed NEA Chairman by President Bush early last year, Gioia has pushed several large projects, including bringing Shakespeare into smaller American communities. But now, he’s bearing bad news: A new NEA study that documents a dramatic decline in Americans’ reading habits.

For the first time in modern history, the report says, less than half the adult population reads literature very broadly defined. The decline is in all demographic groups and is accelerating rapidly. I talked to Dana Gioia recently in his office.

DANA GIOIA, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts: A lot of people think of reading as a very passive activity. You know, we do it while we’re sitting down. But reading is actually a very active enterprise.

It requires sustained, focused attention. You use your memory, you nourish your imagination. It has a kind of mental enlargement.

And I worry about a society in which we’re losing this mental capacity on a broad scale.

The second thing is even scarier. Our study demonstrates that if you are a reader, you are 300 percent more likely to do volunteer work, charity work, to go to art museums, to go to performances.

You’re even twice as likely to go to a sporting event. If we believe that democracy depends on civic participation, this is a really alarming trend.

JEFFREY BROWN: You used the expression in an interview elsewhere of the “dumbing down” of American society.

DANA GIOIA: This survey quantifies the dumbing down of America, at least in terms of reading. And also, it helps explain the kind of ever-shortened attention span that Americans have.

JEFFREY BROWN: You cite computers, video games, Internet, ipods, on and on, all these things that distract us from reading. But that genie is out of the bottle, isn’t it?

DANA GIOIA: Well, first of all, I have no problem with electronic communications. I think it’s great stuff. I own most of the stuff responsible for people reading less. But the trouble is, over the last 25 years, Americans have gone from having one TV, record player or radio in their household, to suddenly having, maybe, three TVs, DVD players, CD players, VCRs, a couple of computers, a couple of video games.

And they’re still watching as much television as ever before. And the problem is, two things are suffering: One is reading and the other is civic participation. So, it’s not a matter of these things being bad, it’s a matter of balance.

JEFFREY BROWN: So have you come up with a solution?

DANA GIOIA: I wish I had. We purposely issued this report without recommendations, really, for two reasons: First of all, I don’t think the federal government should be telling the culture what to do and what not to do.

But more important, the only way this problem is going to be solved is for millions of people to being thinking about it and focusing on ideas. It hasn’t been caused by one reason. It’s not going to be solved by one solution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, but here you are heading this agency, which has been famously a part of culture wars– a debate over what the government should be doing in fostering American arts and culture. Here, you put out a study that says there’s a problem. What’s the next step? How do you connect those dots?

DANA GIOIA: Well, first of all, what the National Endowment for the Arts does best is work in partnership. And what I’m hoping is that a national debate will come out of these things, because they are scary trends.

I’m hoping that thousands of ideas will emerge and that we could help create the partnerships to make these ideas actuality.

But I want this to be, in a sense, a partnership with the population of the United States. You know, we need to take leadership not by dictating, but by enabling other people to realize their ideas.

JEFFREY BROWN: For many years, the NEA, of course, was under fire from many people for what was seen as promoting provocative and, sometimes, to some people, obscene art. Where do you think we are in that debate now?

DANA GIOIA: Well, I think we’ve moved beyond it because… I’ll tell you what I think is unproductive is this sort of notion of “how do you avoid controversy?” I think the way you avoid controversy is by safety and mediocrity, and the role of the NEA is not safety and mediocrity.

Our role is to take works of indisputable excellence and excellence in all the varieties of that and bring it to the broadest cross-section of Americans possible.

Now, you know, one of the things I’m really proud of is that we have launched the largest national initiatives in our history right now, the biggest of which is Shakespeare in American communities. We have 30 theater companies going across all 50 states, over 200 cities.

We even got the Department of Defense to give us $1 million to bring Shakespeare to military bases. And in the process of this, we’ll take one million American high school students and bring them into their first production of Shakespeare. For most of these kids, this is the first time they’ve ever seen any professional, live theater.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, for some people, though, this is the essence of “safe.” Shakespeare? Who’s against Shakespeare?

DANA GIOIA: Well, you know, I could come up with 100 adjectives for Shakespeare before “safe” would be the one I would offer. And, in fact, when you see these kids… I mean, for example, I was in a production in New York and we had all these New York insider theater people as half the audience and then in came 50 kids from the South Bronx. They were seeing “Richard III.”

This production alarmed, excited. It was provocative. It wasn’t safe. It opened up possibilities in life and imagination to these kids that they weren’t getting otherwise.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, to take this a step further, Shakespeare is a dead English writer. Why not… here you are, why not in a government agency, give that money to a contemporary American playwright to create something new?

DANA GIOIA: One of the beauties of this Shakespeare program is that we’ve gotten people so excited about it that we’ve been able to raise more money from Congress, as well as places like the Department of Defense, the Sallie Mae Fund.

So we’ve been able, in a sense, to create the largest program in our history while still doing all of our normal theater activities. In fact, last year, in addition to doing Shakespeare, we were able to foster 135 world premieres of new American works. So, the beauty is, we were able to do both of those things.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you look out now, what’s your greatest fear about our artistic culture?

DANA GIOIA: Well, what worries me about the American arts is, you know, the 20th century was an unprecedented period of growth, of development, of experimentation in the American arts.

We developed this incredible culture, most of which has been professionalized in these little subcultures of dance, subcultures of literature, subcultures of the museum.

And I worry that our artists and our intellectuals have lost, in some cases, their ability to engage broader audiences, and so we have this vast population that needs those things that arts and literature can offer and less ability, in a sense, to create the millions of bridges we need between artists and the general public.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean to be engaged in the big issues of the day?

DANA GIOIA: Absolutely, or not just be engaged in the great issues of the day, but just, also, to make those arts and everything that they offer the imagination, the heart, the mind, accessible to the average person.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it hard for you personally, as a poet, a man with business experience, to come to government?

DANA GIOIA: I didn’t want this job. I mean, quite honestly, I was having a very successful career as a writer. I was living in California, which is my native state. I was very happy in my life, and I am not a political person. I’m an artist.

The reason I came here after saying no and no and no repeatedly was that I felt that the National Endowment for the Arts is a really important institution. It reflects, you know, the noblest aspirations of this country, in terms of fostering the kind of civilization that makes America a great nation.

And I felt that, you know, if somebody had to come here and rebuild the endowment, unfortunately, it was going to be me.

JEFFREY BROWN: We ended our talk with a recitation by Dana Gioia, not NEA Chair, but poet.

DANA GIOIA: I’ll give you a very short poem. It’s only six lines long, and it’s about how much of the lives we lead are private, known only to us.

And 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dana Gioia, thanks for talking to us.

DANA GIOIA: It’s been a pleasure.