Thursday, August 11, 2005
A recent NEA survey (.pdf only) revealed horrifying results – at least to those who read headlines. Less than half of all Americans read literature! Reading declined since 1982! Only a quarter of Hispanics read literature! People who read literature do more charity work that those who don’t!
But look closer – see how they define “literature” and “literary reading.” Literature is “novels, short stories, plays, and poetry,” with no distinction made between genres. The books cannot have been read for school or work. The survey does not take into account work hours, another factor that affects charity time. But most offensive is the idea that non-literary readers are alliterate and must be saved, through laws, interventions, or book sales.
I am not a "literary reader" because I rarely read fiction. I prefer Herodotus to Grisham. My preference for John Keegan over Danielle Steele contributes to the downfall of literacy in America. Is it a crime that I read Ernest Hemingway’s nonfiction as raptly as his fiction? That I find the Naval Institute’s Press histories more enthralling than Harlequin Romance historical novels? That I know more about the struggles to found the US Navy and Marines than I do about Harry Potter’s struggles at Hogworth school? That the last translation of the Iliad I read was a prose translation, not poetry?
And the survey completely discounts internet reading. I’ve only read Thomas Paine on my computer. You know, the founding father who wrote, “These are the days that try men’s souls,” and talked about “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot,” a phrase that inspired the name of the Winter Soldier hearings? Paine wrote about his journeys with General Washington in a language that is breathtaking and vivid, even today. Look at the iambic rhythm of that first line – “These are the days that try men’s souls.” Oh, but this is non-fiction. And I read it on a computer. It doesn’t count. There have to be methodological problems in a survey that counts me as alliterate.
But does it matter that the NEA thinks I’m alliterate and uneducated? No, but I wish they’d be quiet about it and stop demanding more of my tax money. I’m saving up for Will Durant’s history of civilization series.