The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Young Americans Not Reading* — NEA

November 20, 2007
Attleboro, MA

*Except for Attleboro, MA

Just when you think the news about reading can't get any more alarming, a statistic comes along that makes you swallow your gum in amazement. According to the NEA's To Read or Not to Read report landing today, just 31 percent of recent American college graduates tested as "proficient in reading prose" last year. Thirty-one percent! This would have scared the lymph out of me in 1992, when the figure was still a whopping 40%. How did these people get into college, let alone out of it?

Just to take the most obvious ramifications, how are the other 69% even graduating, let alone making their way into the job market? What must the percentage of proficiency be for folks who don't go to college? And I don't think I want to know what the figure is for high-school graduates. How do you fill out a college application if you can't read a page of prose without struggling, never mind write one? Or do young adults read more proficiently at freshman orientation, before all the keggers and the peer pressure and bad academic prose, than on graduation day? As my mother used to say, golly Neds!

"Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising," to quote Sonnet 29, "haply I think on" The Big Read -- specifically, a BR finale I parachuted in on last week in Attleboro, Massachusetts. I must've liked what I saw, because I took 24 pictures there, and I still take digital pictures as if the roll's about to run out. (For all the good that does.) As I look back over my makeshift slideshow, the memories come coursing back:

A picture of Attleboro middle-schooler Chantelle Deslauriers holding up her contribution to a glossy, handsomely designed local anthology helps communicate just a little of the electricity crackling the air at the Attleboro Arts Museum's Reflections of 451 opening. This was hands-down one of the best examples of school participation in a Big Read that I've ever seen. Literally hundreds of teenagers, their families and teachers thronged the museum to display the artwork they'd mined from Bradbury's novel: papier-mache phoenixes suspended from the ceiling, mechanical hounds made out of junked motherboards and scrapyard castoffs, even a giant green foam salamander to match the more sinister one adorning Montag's fire helmet.

All this, together with clever video walls simulating Mildred's in the book, and well-rehearsed blackout sketches performed by students on a makeshift stage. It helps to have a good college with a strong education department like Lesley University pitching in on a Big Read, but it helps even more to have energetic co-organizers like Joan Pilkington-Smyth and two "retired" (tell me another one) teachers like Vic and Iona Bonneville leading the charge. Memo to any remaining non-joiners in Attleboro: You can put your phones back on the hook now.

But there's one more picture from Attleboro that can't pass without comment. That's a shot from the next day of the Attleboro Public Library's 100th anniversary in the same palatial building, taken by me from the podium where I stammered out my not-so-few words of dumbfounded gratitude. In the picture, plainly visible, are the four founders of the library from 1907, impersonated by their inheritors, and stylishly togged out in up-to-the-minute frock coats and hoop skirts. Better yet, I remember their scripted material ? so often forced or corny at these sorts of occasions -- as genuinely funny. Too bad I didn't take a picture of my notes while I was at it.

Next stop on my rewind of last week's Massachusetts-New York swing will probably be White Plains -- birthplace of the hoop skirt, incidentally. Will somebody please confiscate my WPA Guide to America before I swallow it whole?