Trying to Revive the Art of Reading, A City Turns Its Eyes to Hurston

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007

Zora, they've been reading you throughout this city. Reading what you wrote so long ago. Across wards. Across words. Reading in bedrooms and libraries and literary bookstores and basement classrooms. Sinking into comfortable reading chairs and rising to become "lords of sounds and lesser things."

In a citywide event called the Big Read, developed by the National Endowment for the Arts and hosted by the Humanities Council of Washington, hundreds of people read about you -- we mean, Janie and Tea Cake -- in your voluptuous 1937 novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Wondering where the metaphors came from in the novel tracking Janie's quest for love during a life that you compared to a pear tree with "doom and gloom in its branches."

Zora Neale Hurston, the writer and anthropologist, the graduate of Howard University, and now an icon of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote "Their Eyes" in seven weeks. Published in 1937, the book is now regarded as ahead of its time, this story of a woman determining her destiny, no matter the wagging tongues of disapproval in her small town.

Now Washington residents have been reading together, with organizers wondering, hoping really, that such a collective effort -- efforts they have encouraged all over the country -- would help to stop the frightening slide in the number of people who read literature for pleasure.

In 2004, the NEA released a report that found that for the first time in recent history, less than half the adult population reads literature. The report was based on a survey, conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002, which asked people whether they had read any novels, short stories, plays or poetry in their leisure time during the previous 12 months. This excluded reading for school or work.

"You could answer that you read the first page of a John Grisham novel and gave up because it was too hard and you would still be counted," says David Kipen, NEA director of literature. Still, only 46.7 percent of adults in the United States answered yes, a drop from 54 percent in 1992. The decline could have a devastating impact on democracy, on culture, on politics, on education, on everything, the NEA argues. And then what would the world come to?

"We are at a tipping point," Kipen says. "We may have lost a generation in the last decade. We added 40 million people in America, except the reading numbers are flat."

Reading "makes us fully human," says Dana Gioia, NEA chairman.

So, Zora, we spent time doing some of what you used to do: We eavesdropped on the lives of folks, listening to their words and their stories. During the read, which ends today, we listened and watched, wondering if readers would indeed find threads of commonality and connection in your pages. And, yes, maybe pieces of themselves, too.

* * *

At Chapters: a Literary Bookstore on 11th Street NW, which has held daily readings, the white chairs fill up as people carrying their books enter, seeking the company of others in the lonely occupation of reading a book.

Poet Reuben Jackson reads Chapter 8 of "Their Eyes Were Watching God." People circle around him. The day is busy, but they find comfort in listening to someone read them a story.

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