Reading has changed in America

 

According to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts, 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.

When we started the New Student Reading Project in 2001, we didn't realize that the concept would prove to be so prescient. What started as a way for new members of the Cornell community to share and discuss a common reading experience, must now look toward reinforcing the greater importance and benefits of reading, and the personal relationships we can have with great writing.

That challenge is even greater this year, as nearly 5,000 students from 67 high schools in 18 New York counties and New York City will join us as part of a statewide pilot program coordinated through Cornell Cooperative Extension and the 2005 New Student Reading Project at Cornell.

The book we will be reading is Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's masterpiece Things Fall Apart, a story of simple lives turned inside out. It is plainly told, yet powerfully effective. With this novel, Achebe shows that great writing can cross cultural boundaries and reach into the root of humanity. As readers, we only need to be open to the experience.

We read so much every day. 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 that we do from hour to hour, why do national trends seem to point to a decline in reading for pleasure?

One answer might be that we cannot-and must not-read literature 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, and nearly subsumed of all art. It is written quickly to be read quickly, then processed, and discarded, forgotten.

But literature stays with you. When we pick up a great book, we are entering into a new world that has been crafted and expressed in a very personal way. It is a one-on-one process that is never experienced exactly the same way by any two people, and yet the best writing can affect and move each of us in very similar ways.

Chinua Achebe has said, "The idea that art is autonomous and that it happens by itself, is simply madness. What we say, what we write or what we paint is as human beings who live in society and are accountable to that society." This is the idea at the heart of the New Student Reading Project, and each book we read together becomes an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and about the community we share.

As you read Things Fall Apart, you will anticipate, you will be frustrated, and you may be angry or even amused. But it's important to realize that the way you experience this story is unique and only possible through a book. We create the world we enter within its pages just as much as Chinua Achebe has created it. It's a participatory, interactive journey that we experience individually even as we are sharing it with each other.

Reading is the best thing we can do, for ourselves and each other. Not only does it enrich our lives, but it can enrich the world around us. As the NEA survey also indicates, people who read for pleasure are many more times more likely than those who don't 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 is the best kind of person to be.

This website is your portal to Things Fall Apart, as well as all the activities and details of the events surrounding our reading of this important novel. Please use this site to explore some of the activities going on throughout Cornell and surrounding communities. I encourage you to take part in as much as you can, and broaden your understanding of what Achebe's writing can mean in our lives today.

Carolyn (Biddy) Martin, Provost

 

2005 New Student Reading Project Cornell University