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The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. -- John Steinbeck
The great author John Steinbeck wrote about "regular Americans" for regular Americans. For this he was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature and his chronicle of the Depression Dust Bowl, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, is found on lists of the greatest books of the 20th century. Steinbeck might be disheartened by some recent developments which reflect on the American culture of reading.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published the disturbing results of a study on American reading habits. "Reading at Risk" showed that the percentage of Americans reading literature has dropped from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 46.7 percent in 2002. That decline, the study said, represents a loss of 20 million readers. And the rate of the decline is accelerating, especially among young people. The study stated starkly: "At the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will eventually disappear in half a century."

Last year the three public libraries in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, California announced they would be forced to close because of lack of funding. Some 100 residents of the town gathered for a candelight vigil January 17, 2005 around the statue of John Steinbeck in front of the Steinbeck Library to protest the imminent closing. Library staff received termination notices for June 17, 2005. The American Library Association has passed a resolution opposing the closures.

Reading rates among Hispanics are lower than that of either white or African Americans, something that NOW's guest Rueben Martínez has dedicated his life to combatting. The Hispanic reading market could be poised to increase, along with the Hispanic population of the country — now the nation's largest minority. Martínez's own local community, Santa Ana, California, has one of the largest populations of Spanish-speakers of any large city in the U.S.

The communities of Salina and Santa Ana are not alone in not being able to fully serve the potential reading population. The 80 branch libraries of the New York Public Library have been forced to reduce hours of service several times in the past few years. Smaller towns and cities face even greater challenges. Use the links below to find out about library funding in your locale, how to volunteer in a literacy or reading program and other reading resources.

American Library Association The American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with more than 64,000 members. Its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information. ALA offers professional services and publications to members and nonmembers, including online news stories from AMERICAN LIBRARIES and analysis of crucial issues from the Washington Office.

Great American Public Libraries Report, 2004 (PDF)
This study contains an assessment of the state of the nation's public libraries. The article includes a state by state ranking of library services; electronic resources supply and use and spending rates on print and electronic resources.

International Reading Association
IRA was founded in 1956 as a professional organization of those involved in teaching reading to learners of all ages. Over the years, the focus has expanded to address a broad range of issues in literacy education worldwide.

National Center for Educational Statistics — Library Statistics Program
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) initiated and funded a nation-wide library statistics program in 1989 that includes surveys on academic libraries, public libraries, school library media centers, and state library agencies. Find out about your local libraries here.

PBS's BETWEEN THE LIONS: Literacy Resources
Links to reading, library and literacy sites for kids from the PBS show. Selected sites serve both English and Spanish reading groups.

PBS Literacy Link
LiteracyLink's goal is to provide a link for underserved and hard-to-reach adults and their teachers to quality adult basic education and GED preparation tools using technology. Combining video, the Internet, and print materials, LiteracyLink programs are relevant to the needs of the individual learner, adult instructional programs, and the workforce.

Latino Book and Family Festival
The Latino Book & Family Festival was launched in 1997 in Los Angeles to promote literacy, culture and education and to provide people of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to celebrate the diversity of the multicultural communities in the United States in a festival atmosphere.

John Steinbeck Center
Learn more about writer John Steinbeck's life and works. Also, take a look at NOW's online feature "Finding Genius Online" to explore the work of additional artists, writers and "average Americans."

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