Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fosco's 2009 Literacy Challenge!

One of Fosco's favorite hobbyhorses is to complain about the death of reading in our society (which he does almost once a year). As you know, Fosco is rather fond of books--so much so, that he spends more time with books than he does with people (and that's just how he likes it, thank you). As Rick Moody once wrote (in Garden State:

Books might be better than people
Fosco is inclined to agree with this. Especially if you change "might be" to "are."

But you don't have to go as far as Fosco with your bibliophilia (or misanthropy) to agree that reading is a good thing for society. A literate population is essential for democracy (and probably for any good kind of civilization), and we ignore that fact at our own peril. And at some point, we're going to have to stop pretending that our country can be governed by someone who hasn't read a book in the past decade (I'm looking at you, Governor MooseMunch). Of course, regular reading is not a sufficient condition to lead this country (because apparently GWB claims to read a lot); however, sophisticated reading skill is clearly one of the necessary conditions to do the job well. Yes, Fosco proudly admits that he is an elitist about reading--and he thinks you should be too.

So you can imagine Fosco's cautious optimism about a recent report from the NEA suggesting that fiction reading increased in 2008. According to this study, almost exactly half of American adults engaged in one act of "literary reading" last year. Literary reading means novels, poems, short stories, etc. Unfortunately, the survey did not distinguish between online reading of these genres and traditional print reading (which may account for some of the increase). That's just one of the omissions in the survey, which also did not differentiate between the genres read nor considered the quality of the reading material. But even though we might like to have that kind of information, there is still cause to celebrate the main finding.

It turns out that this increase is significant as compared with literary reading just six years ago, as this table from the NY Times shows:

Although, reading rates still remain in decline as compared to the early 80s and 90s.

Of course, the chair of the NEA (a Bush appointee) credits this increase to the NEA's own efforts, including a community reading program called "The Big Read." The chair
attributed the increase in literary reading to community-based programs like the “Big Read,” Oprah Winfrey’s book club, the huge popularity of book series like “Harry Potter” and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight,” as well as the individual efforts of teachers, librarians, parents and civic leaders to create “a buzz around literature that’s getting people to read more in whatever medium.”
Again, as much as Fosco would love to make snide jokes about the idea of creating a "buzz around literature," he just can't bring himself to quibble with an increase in reading--even if Oprah and the Bush NEA want to take credit for it.

For a more pessimistic (and more knowledgeable) opinion (an opinion that Fosco might share if he weren't trying to be a more positive person in 2009), you should read this post at Caleb Crain's remarkable blog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. I've admired for many years Crain's scholarly work and was very pleased to come across Crain's blog recently. In fact, I'd been looking for an opportunity to plug it here at Fosco Lives!...

Which brings us to Fosco's 2009 Literacy Challenge! A challenge to you, the Fosco Lives! reader. Fosco is going to assume that anyone who regularly reads this blog has read a book in the last year, even if it was just Gossip Girl. And so, he would like to encourage you all to try to double your reading this year! That's right: double your reading in 2009. Seriously. You already watch enough TV and you spend plenty of time with your dog/kids/significant other. Do something for your brain this year. And if next year the NEA finds that reading increased again in 2009, Fosco will take credit like a muthaf*cker.


Anonymous said...

Oz prefers some people to books... especially a special someone (maybe the person's name rhymes with phosco) that enjoys reading literature.

Anonymous said...

George Bush must read at least a little -- his grades at Yale were better than Al Gore's. AND, unlike Al "is it hot out here?" Gore, Bush walked away with a degree.

Further, GWB's IQ is estimated to be higher than John Kerry, mostly based upon higher military test scores.

So what make you think "W" doesn't read?

The BeeMaster

FOSCO said...

I don't know whether or not GWB has any raw intelligence. But, he doesn't really communicate much intellectual curiosity, does he? Either he's purposefully "dumbing himself down" to appeal to the lowest common denominator; or he's actually not that interested in the life of the mind. I don't think either option is a good thing.

Why do I think he doesn't read? Several reasons:
1. His own advisors have reported that "he's not a big reader."
2. His list of favorite books is hardly very distinguished and seems designed mainly for self-presentational purposes.

Yes, I know that Rove has recently tried to paint Bush as a voracious reader. Maybe that's true. But it's hard to know what is true with this new "Bush Legacy Project."

FOSCO said...

@Oz: Fosco is pretty fond of Oz as well... ;)