The Big Read Blog (Archive)

All Muses on Deck

June 22, 2009
Washington, DC

In case you missed it during the runup to Big Read Orientation, the NEA released highlights from the Census Bureau's first survey of public participation in the arts since 2002, and the news isn?t good. A smaller percentage of Americans are enjoying the arts than six years ago. All but one of the arts surveyed showed considerable declines. Theater? Down. Opera? Down. Ballet, or other forms of dance? Down. Classical music or jazz? Down. According to another study, arts education is down, too. But literature?Here?s where things get extra interesting, because literature is up. Not stratospherically up, but up. Any kind of up is actually kind of a miracle, when you consider that literature was fading faster than all the other arts until recently. The NEA jumped at the chance to break this uplifting news six months ago, in a report called Reading on the Rise -- which a lot of people took with a grain of salt because it seemed to come out of nowhere, without all these other arts statistics to accompany them.

When you look at all the arts together, though, one conclusion looks pretty incontestable: All the arts are careening downhill on a runaway train ? all except literature, which had looked like the absolute caboose until about five minutes ago, when a mystery engineer somehow lifted her bolt, veered her off onto a siding, and started to loop her back in the exact opposite direction.

Now, if you think this means we can slack off, or that I?m even happy about this, think again. Here?s why this seeming decoupling of literature from the other arts is very bad news.

First off, the number of Americans who can answer yes to the question ?Did you read a book for fun last year?? is now up from 46% to a whopping?53%. The gains aren?t exactly prodigious. Now isn?t the time to slack off; it?s time to go to the whip.

Second, more people may be reading because fewer people can afford to do anything else. When the economy improves, literature may go screaming right back downhill ? maybe by itself, as temporary readers flee back to the theater and the concert hall, or maybe recoupled to the runaway train, as those temporary readers go back to paintball, and all the arts reunite just in time to derail together into a heap of twisted metal.

Third, and most important, nobody reads in a vacuum. Stats show that people who read are likelier to go out to a show too, or a concert, or a recital. What devoted, venturesome reader hates the performing arts? On the contrary, literature rustles up audiences for her sister arts, and those other arts return the favor. Me, I closed last year?s orientation with a quote from Angels in America, so you can imagine how depressed I am to see these attendance trends for theater and the other performing arts.

So, far from declaring victory and going home, we need your Big Reads more than ever before. Thanks to all the partners you?ve rounded up,one of the NEA?s most interdisciplinary program is poised to bring new audiences to all the venues I?ve seen on your applications: symphony halls, live theaters, moviehouses, high-school auditoriums, jazz clubs, and so much else. And here?s the beauty part--every reader we bring to the performing arts will be matched by an arts partron who rediscovers the joys of literature. To borrow the language of grantmaking, it?s a classic one-to-one match.

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