Are We Putting Reading and Democracy at Risk?
Last week, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of its survey "Reading at Risk," which described the movement of the American public away from books and literature and toward television and electronic media. According to the NEA survey, "reading is in decline among all groups, in every region, at every educational level, and within every ethnic group." The day the NEA report was released, the House, in a tie vote, upheld the government's rights to obtain bookstore and library records under a provision of the USA Patriot Act. The House proposal, attached to a spending bill, would have barred the federal government from demanding library records, reading lists, book customer lists and other material in terrorism and intelligence investigations.
These two events are completely unrelated, yet they echo each other in the message they send about the place of books and reading in American culture. At the heart of the NEA survey is the belief that our democratic system depends on leaders who can think critically, analyze texts, and write clearly. All of these are skills promoted by reading and discussing books and literature. At the same time, through a provision of the Patriot Act, the leaders of our country are unwittingly sending the message that reading may be connected to undesirable activities that might undermine our system of government rather than helping democracy flourish.
Our culture's decline in reading began well before the enactment of the Patriot Act. During the culture wars of the 1980s school systems across the country pulled books from library shelves such as Of Mice and Men, Huckleberry Finn, and James and the Giant Peach. If they weren't pulled from library shelves, they were placed on restricted reading lists because their content or message was deemed inappropriate to parents and teachers. In many school districts, this practice continues. As with the Patriot Act, the message is that reading certain books can be harmful. Given that message, why read at all? Now, what started in schools across the county is playing itself out on a national stage and is possibly having an impact on the reading habits, or lack of reading habits, of the American public.
The message that books may contain dangerous ideas and content is one that I grew up with. As a young boy in Mississippi during the 1960s and 1970s, reading certain books was discouraged, particularly in those tense days after school integration. Mississippi was a self-contained world, one that gave the message that outside influences were dangerous and could destroy the unique culture of the state. To a certain extent, Mississipi's leaders were right. It was those outside influences in certain books, literature, and reading materials that played a role in the decision of many of its citizens to fight to overthrow segregation. James Silver's Mississippi: The Closed Society was read widely by civil rights workers who came to work in Mississippi.
Before school integration, I had been encouraged by my parents and teachers to read anything I was capable of reading. After integration, teachers took a sudden interest in what I read not to encourage me, but to determine whether what I read fit in with the narrow view of the world they tried to maintain, even after integration. Once I was asked to cover my copy of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf; a teacher had found it offensive, and an offensive cover must have offensive content as well as ideas.
The experience of having my reading monitored during my teen years is the reason that I remained a voracious reader. Because books gave me an eye into a world outside the one I experienced every day, I chose to be a part of the profession that created them. Today, as a writer, editor, and publisher, I find myself in the position of taking a strong position not only on the freedom to read but also on literacy. By literacy I not only mean the ability to read, but the ability to read and to think clearly.
I learned to think clearly by reading great literature, even books that contained ideas I disagreed with or that disturbed me. Although I grew up in a culture that viewed certain types of literature with suspicion, I was nurtured in a home where books and reading were part of the fabric of our lives. And that changed my life.
According to the NEA's report, books and reading must become a crucial part of the fabric of American culture, just as they were in my family. But that will be difficult to achieve as long as our country's leaders continue to give the message that books have the potential to undermine our country rather than build it up.
Copyright © 2004 The Chicago Tribune