According to a relatively recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the amount of reading done for pleasure is down in this country, especially reading of literature such as fiction, poetry and drama. It is happening across all age groups, all genders and races, regardless of income, education, or region. Perhaps most disturbing, the steepest decline has come among young adults, ages 18 to 24, over the past two decades. Despite this study, there are also plenty of signs that the reading and discussion of books are alive and well. Their power may even be growing in some populations.
When we started the New Student Reading Project in 2001, we did not anticipate that the exchange of ideas about books would turn out to be as compelling and popular as it is. What started as a way for new members of the Cornell community to gain access to the benefits of Cornell's intellectual life, now reinforces the obvious pleasures of reading and discussing great books for large numbers of people. It also sustains the individual and often highly personal relationships we develop with great writing and illuminating analysis.
We are surrounded by text, and it has become a primary tool of communication, whether in email, instant messaging, or the news crawls at the bottom of a TV screen. We've even adapted the voice technology of the cell phone to send text to each other. And yet with all this reading we do, far too many people are missing out on the unique benefits of reading, discussing, and writing about books.
We cannot—and should not—read literature or historical analysis in the same way we read email. As technology continues to provide us with ever-faster ways of communicating with text, the message has become faster, shorter, leaner. Though email and text messages have their own ways of playing with language and text, they do not do what literary or rhetorically powerful language does to call our attention to language itself, what it can do, how it shapes what we are capable of thinking, and how it promotes our capacity to think critically and communicate effectively.
Literature and powerful, sustained analyses stay with us. When we pick up an important book, we enter a world that challenges us, that opens us up to perspectives and experiences that we would otherwise not have. No two people experience any book in exactly the same way, and yet the best writing affects and moves each of us, often in similar ways and in ways that prompt us to communicate with each other.
Reading not only enriches our lives, but it can enrich the world around us. As the NEA survey indicates, people who read for pleasure are many times more likely than those who do not to visit museums and attend concerts, and almost three times as likely to perform volunteer and charity work. Readers are active participants in the world around them, and that engagement is critical to individual and social well-being.
This website is your portal to the New Student Reading Project's 2008 selection, Lincoln at Gettysburg, as well as all the activities and details of the events surrounding our reading of this important book. Please use this site to explore some of the activities going on throughout the Cornell community. I encourage you to take part in as much as you can, and broaden your understanding of what Garry Wills's writing does to deepen and broaden our knowledge of Lincoln, of American history, and of the importance of language and rhetoric.
Carolyn (Biddy) Martin, Provost