"Big Read" is an NEA initiative that promises to "restore reading to the center of American culture." Over at the LA Times, reason contributor Jim Henley shares some thoughts with the few who can still interpret printed characters:
The NEA knows that reading has slipped because of its own survey from 2004, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," and a 2007 follow-up, "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence." The reports find 20-year declines in what the NEA calls "literary reading" among all demographic categories. It defines "literary reading" generously: "any novels, short stories, poetry or plays"—anything fictional or poetic. "Executioner" novels count as much as "The Corrections"; Dan Brown no less than Tony Kushner. "Reading at Risk" concluded that fewer than half of all Americans read stories or poems for pleasure in 2002.
I feel bittersweet about this myself. I'm writing a novel. I've published poems. Nothing feels quite so discomfiting to me as walking into someone's home and realizing that there is not a single book to be found in it. But nearly everything that was around in 1982 is less central than it used to be: broadcast television, the Big Three automakers, the major record labels. And in the February Harper's, Ursula K. Le Guin suggests the larger pattern: For much of history, hardly anyone read, and even fewer read for pleasure rather than necessity. Then, for a while, many people read. (Le Guin sees "a high point of reading in the United States from around 1850 to about 1950—call it the century of the book.") Now fewer do.
Against the long pull of this tide, the NEA's Big Read program looks like mere sentimentality.