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.

Terri Merz, co-owner of the bookstore, passes out copies of the book. Jackson is sitting in a chair, and above him are labels that mark the bookshelves: "Literary Criticism," "Psychology," "Philosophy." You wonder really what would happen to books and these shelves and these subjects if more people stopped reading literature. Would it plunge us into another Dark Age, a time when intellectual stimulation became stagnant and ignorance widespread?

Jackson reads: So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him?

Jackson stops. "I want to pause and put some of these lines in my pocket," says the poet. "These days we forget how one can paint with language."

A woman in blue asks: "Which one did you say you would put in your pocket?"

"The description of death," Jackson says. "It's so sublime. How do we get something from the world and onto the page? When you see somebody so capable of such consistent beauty as this. It's not easy."

You ask him: Can a collective read save literature?

"Literature can help us," he says. "We are spiritually diminished without literature. Our understanding or comprehension of the world is wounded if we resort to television, video games. I still think the word is powerful."

* * *

In the basement of the Washington Literacy Council, Judy Horowitz introduces "Their Eyes Were Watching God" to her class. Horowitz places a CD into the player. And Ruby Dee begins reading: Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

The students sit as the words spill out of the CD, picking at scabs of old memories.

One girl's left knee shakes. One woman puts her head on the table.

The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk.

And Janie, with firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets, begins to tell her life story.

Then the reading ends and the teacher asks: "What do you think?"

She asks how the story so far hits them, makes them think of their own life stories, which she wants them to write.

Carl Townes, 52, says, "When I was a child growing up, there was women sitting out front. There was a girl. She had long hair and smelled good and they had something negative to say about her. The guys was always picking her up and dropping her off. And the women sitting on the porch always had something to say."

The teacher: "Do we do that today?" She writes the word "gossip" on the board.

The teacher asks a student from Guinea whether she recognizes people on Hurston's front porch.

"In my culture," says the woman, "a man marries a first wife and a second wife and when he marries a third, you know they will talk about her."

Adds Kenneth Williams, 68: "My father had seven brothers and four sisters. When they came over, I thought they were telling stories. It sounded like stories. We would be sent to bed, but we didn't go to bed. We would sit on the steps and listen. They'd be talking about everything. We would fall asleep on the stair steps listening to what we thought were stories. Back then telling stories was a way of entertainment."

* * *

Abdul Ali, 22, a student at Howard University, sits in Busboys and Poets, reading Zora. Ali says he took a walking tour, tracing Hurston's steps through the District. "She became real and tangible," he says.

Inspired by the book, he sank in a chair and pulled out a black pen and wrote:

Watching Zora

i saw you under

a patch of shade

on seventh street

or was it the everglade? . . .

and the men and women

drink the evening cool

sitting on the cement brown

stoned porches

where men become lords

of sound speaking death

in iambic pentameter

and women become the

envy of the gods testifyin'

how love is a moving thing.

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