Jennifer Woodward and Geoffrey Harris like to linger in the basement stacks, in a section of Holland Library called the Deweys.
The two Washington State University juniors play a game amidst the eight-foot shelves. They hunt for the oldest book among the titles still filed under the library’s old Dewey decimal system. Heading off in different directions, they ease into the rows of shelving, find a target amid the worn and faded covers, delicately extract it, and leaf in a page or two to find the date of publication.
The sweet smell of old paper, the steady hiss of the climate control punctuated by a “Hey” as one of them spots an early 1800s engineering manual or the other a color-plated biography of Mary Queen of Scots—”That’s our idea of a good date,” says Woodward.
Harris spent his first three weeks in Pullman just exploring the library. Now, he says he can direct you to the right shelves for American history, or economics, or mythology. Even with hours of exploration behind them, Harris and Woodward can still get caught up among the shelves. “I’ll go in to find something, I’ll get distracted, and three hours and several books later I’m back onto my subject,” says Harris.
These WSU students and their ilk notwithstanding, the rest of the country has stopped reading books. At least that’s how the National Endowment of the Arts tells it after releasing its Reading at Risk survey last summer.
Warning of “an imminent cultural crisis,” the NEA survey points out that literary reading has suffered a steady decline. In a survey conducted in 1982, close to 57 percent of adults were reading literature, which the NEA defines as fiction, poetry, plays, and novels. In 1992 that number had dropped to 54 percent, and in 2002 it fell to 46.7 percent. The survey, which is based on U.S. Census Bureau polling over 20 years, notes that the rate of decline has accelerated, particularly among the young.
Surveying more than 17,000 adults, primarily over the phone, the study went on to break down readership based on social, economic, educational, and racial guidelines. Women read more than men, white Americans read more than those from other races, wealthier people read more, and the more educated you are, the more likely you are to read literature. Still, the amount of literary reading of any of these groups has dropped in the past decade.
The survey showed that fewer than 57 percent of respondents read any type of book in the previous year, down from nearly 61 percent in 1992. The NEA concludes that with the most precipitous declines in younger readers, we could be losing a generation of readers.
The survey and its key findings are in no way a guide to what should be done, says Garrick Davis, a spokesman for the NEA. It simply chronicles that there has been a decline in reading among Americans over the past 20 years.
The NEA’s call for concern hasn’t quite prompted reading and education experts to raise the alarm. But it has enhanced the discussion of all things books: who reads, what’s being published, and how the industry is changing. It also prompted us here at Washington State Magazine to look at reading in our home state and ask the experts where we in Washington fit in the world of words.
“I don’t think it’s a very good survey,” says Eric Anctil, a professor of education at WSU. Is fiction reading declining? Absolutely, says Anctil. “But I don’t think it’s the crisis that the NEA made it out to be.” The survey neglects whole categories of books like history, biography, and creative nonfiction, he says. “It’s not really addressing reading habits. It’s looking at whether people read fiction.”
Anctil has stacks of books on his desk and by his bed, most of them nonfiction. “And I get a ton of magazines a month,” he says. Look around Washington for examples of communities that read, he says. You see people browsing in bookstores on their lunch hours. They’re ensconced in coffee shops with a book, a magazine, or a Sunday paper on the weekends. They’re the kids who stop by the library on their way home from school and the commuters who wouldn’t dream of boarding a bus or a ferry without a book in hand.
Anctil’s advice to look around is echoed by other readers, writers, and professors. Washington is a state that loves books. It holds both big book festivals and intimate author readings. It has book groups, poetry clubs, and a potpourri of independent bookstores. Last year, according to a University of Wisconsin study, Seattle ranked as the second most literate city in the country, right after Minneapolis.
With a legacy of literary masters like Theodore Roethke and Mary McCarthy, Washington has long been a place for writers. Today Washington is home to noted authors including Pete Dexter, David Guterson, Ivan Doig, William Dietrich, and historian Laurie Carlson (’04 Ph.D. Hist.), as well as critically acclaimed poets Sherman Alexie (’94 Am. Stud.) and Jana Harris.
Ron Sher, a Seattle-area developer, is buying and building independent bookstores at a time when they are vanishing nationwide. In 1999, Sher (’79, Ph.D. Ag. Econ.) bought Seattle’s landmark Elliott Bay Book Company. He also started Third Place Books in a struggling Lake Forest Park shopping center. Elliott Bay continues to offer regular author readings and has retained its unique character under Sher’s ownership, while Third Place Books provides cultural events, community forums, and even a cooking school. More recently Sher opened a Third Place store in the Seattle neighborhood of Ravenna. It’s all about enhancing quality of life, he says. “I’m trying to create community gathering places.”
Author Kim Barnes (’85 M.A. English) spends her evenings in a big leather chair, a stack of books and magazines on the table beside her. If the writer turns around, she can look through the trees that cradle her home and sometimes watch a flock of geese drift over the rolling fields of the Palouse. More often than not, though, she’s watching a flock of words drift across the page of some new literary morsel or manuscript from a friend or former student.
Barnes remembers the hullabaloo raised by the NEA survey last summer and thought it was silly. “Everybody I know reads,” she says. “My dad barely graduated from high school, and no one read more than he did.”
Almost since the country’s founding days, America has been a society that reads across social strata. With public schools, libraries, and democratic equality, everyone had the right to read and access to books.
Alexis de Tocqueville touched on this in his Democracy in America, noting that the “trading classes” had a taste for literature and a hunger for a wide range of materials. By contrast, he writes, an aristocracy has only a small class of selective readers.
In 1997 Barnes was a Pulitzer finalist for her nonfiction work, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country, for which she also won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award. Much of her work falls into a category that wasn’t discussed in the NEA survey.
“There’s a great deal of reading going on right now, and it’s in all kinds of nonfiction,” she says.
“The historical nonfiction market is enormous. Look at the best-seller lists.” She points to recent biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson. Not only is that good reading, it’s helping with a kind of historical literacy, she says.
Barnes has a great view from her perch as an author, creative writing professor at the University of Idaho, and Idaho State Writer in Residence. She has visited with readers throughout the Northwest and gotten a sense of what books mean to them. “People love the physical presence of books,” she says. “They love the smell. They love to own them. That’s not going to change.”
The Northwest is a natural place for readers, especially with book cities like Seattle and Portland, she says. There’s a critical mass of readers there, a healthy bookstore selection, and great opportunities there for people drawn to education and enlightenment, she says. But book culture is not limited to the big cities.
Barnes is often invited to small community book events. “These literary festivals are springing up all over,” she says. “People show up and sit around in lawn chairs in the park. Or it’s a bunch of little blue-haired ladies at the library.”
“There’s a tremendous community of readers and writers in the Northwest,” says Barnes. “It’s far flung. And there are pockets of readers in every rural community. They’re folks who meet at the library, loggers, farmers, wives, teachers.”
When Clyde Holloway (’73 Bus.) unlocks the door to his small Vancouver bookstore each morning, he’s not worried about the state of reading in the country.
As owner of So Many Books, he’s thinking about the multitude and variety of new and used tomes that line his shelves, that customer who’s always looking for something about Zen Buddhism, and whether the local book group will be settling into his meeting room that night.
Before going into the book business, Holloway sold medical supplies. It wasn’t a job he loved, so he and his wife Beth started with their vast collection of books at home as used stock, ordered some new books, and pulled together a small bookstore in the laid-back Uptown Village neighborhood, which lacks parking meters and holds a variety of shops, eateries, and antiques stores.
While he loves to read, Holloway struggles to find the time. His solution: “I give up my sleep to do my reading.”
Being in the business of books has brought Holloway closer to his neighbors and his community. He takes a special joy in seeing a young reader dive into his shelves on a hunt for something new, and he has a familiar comfort with his regulars who stop by for coffee or to cruise the new paperbacks. “They’ll come in and buy books. Or they’ll just talk books,” he says. “I am perfectly happy with someone who comes in and sits down in an easy chair and reads.”
Independent bookstores are like people—they have their own character and style, says Thom Chambliss, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA). They serve readers in ways the big stores can’t, he says. They often have hard-to-find and out-of-print books, and they are true members of the community, he says. “We have some great stores in the Pacific Northwest,” he says, nodding first to the two best known: Powell City of Books in Portland and, his favorite, The Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle. “I love the size and the layout,” he says, of the store in downtown Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, just a block up from the waterfront.
Those that are mostly locally known, like Fairhaven’s Village Books, The Secret Garden in Seattle, and the homey Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island, have their followings. These stores have targeted their neighborhoods and communities and stock their shelves to suit their customers’ interests and tastes. “To a lot of regular readers, that’s important,” says Chambliss.
That’s not to say something isn’t at risk. The small bookstores, the town libraries, the school librarians all stand in jeopardy of competition and budget cuts. The number of independent stores nationwide is dropping, says Chambliss, noting that the Northwest has been affected, too. In 1994 the booksellers group had 345 members and in 2004 counted just 246.
Last year, two of Washington’s hallmark cultural festivals disappeared from the Seattle scene: the Northwest Bookfest and the Seattle Fringe Festival.
The Bookfest started out in 1994 with one good idea, two enthusiastic organizers, and minimal funding.
“It was cheap, it was grungy down on the docks there, it was cold, and it was a raging success,” says Chambliss. The event boasted best-selling authors, and some years attracted as many as 25,000 readers. But the bookfest changed locations several times, lost local backing, and finally just ran out of money. Last spring organizers announced the end of the event.
As if that wasn’t dire enough, the 13-year-old Fringe Fest, which celebrated the local not-so-mainstream arts scene, also ran into money problems. It struggled to pay its artists from the previous year and finally closed up shop.
Still, those in the book scene don’t see the failure of these festivals as signs of reading’s demise. Maybe the festivals faded because there’s so much for readers to do. A rich diet of literary events can be found throughout Washington. Seattle, for example, is home to readers’ and poetry series, countless book clubs, and even very specific literary organizations like the Northwest Classics Society, whose members share a passion for Homer.
Also, new book festivals and literary events are popping up like mushrooms around the state. The most notable success is GetLit in Cheney and Spokane. This April, the Eastern Washington University Press celebrated its seventh annual GetLit festival with Salman Rushdie, David Sedaris, and poet Rita Dove. And in past years it has attracted national notables like Garrison Keillor, Dave Barry, and Kurt Vonnegut.
It’s a good time to be a reader. The independent bookstores are finding new ways to capture and serve their customers. A Book for All Seasons in Leavenworth started hosting summer book camps for young readers five years ago. “Last year we sold out all of the camps, so this year we’re thinking about adding two more weeks,” says owner Pat Rutledge. Island Books on Mercer Island hosts a monthly book group, with a meaty reading list that this winter included Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder and Elizabeth Costello by Nobel Prize-winner J.M. Coetzee.
These events, reading programs, and book personalities are all valuable social and cultural resources, says Chambliss. People should make the effort to use them, he says. And read regularly, he says: “Pick up a book a week.”
Back on campus, when they’re not in the Deweys, Woodward and Harris might not be able to get in a book a week, with a full homework schedule. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have time for a little Robert Burns poetry or a seafaring adventure. And they have a list of books they’re planning to read this summer.
Books can educate, inspire, divert, and sometimes provide an escape, says Woodward. “Life without books really wouldn’t be life.”