James Patterson thinks big and loud. Last year the prolific author, whose books have sold more than 300 million copies around the world, launched a flashy media campaign to encourage President Obama to promote reading. And Patterson’s philanthropic ventures include dozens of college scholarships, millions of books donated to children and members of the armed forces, and millions of dollars granted to school libraries and independent bookstores.
Now the literary community is returning the love. On Wednesday, at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York, Patterson will receive the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service, a distinction previously conferred on Maya Angelou, Dave Eggers and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The novelist modestly laughs off that lofty title.
“It’s a long way from Newburgh, New York, to the National Book Awards,” he says, referring to his humble beginnings. “My father grew up in the Newburgh poorhouse, ‘the pokey.’ He lived there with his mother, who was a charwoman. She cleaned the bathrooms and kitchens.”
The people who ran the institution eventually helped Patterson’s father get a scholarship to Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. Patterson has been determined to offer the same kind of helping hand to others.
In a statement released before the awards ceremony, Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said: “James Patterson’s dedication to the expansion of reading is closer to a crusade than an avocation. Its fervor seems to increase with each passing year.”
Asked to name the greatest challenge facing the drive to increase literacy in this country, Patterson offers an impassioned response: “Indifference! I mean, look at the presidential debates: Do you see a lot of discussion of education? Remember the old line: ‘It’s the economy, stupid’? Well, the future of the economy is education, stupid. But people just don’t care enough. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we needed schools more. But nobody’s digging deeper — left or right.”
Despite the pervasiveness of illiteracy and the complexity of the challenge, Patterson isn’t discouraged. “Who could have imagined 30 years ago that smoking would be banned in restaurants?” he asks. “Things can change. A lot of people get the feeling that everything’s hopeless, but we can change the education system. We can get kids reading. You can get the kids in your house reading. You can help the neighborhood school.”
Still, a year after his public campaign to encourage Obama to promote the importance of reading, Patterson sounds underwhelmed by the administration’s response. “I would have loved to have seen education dealt with more,” he says. “And it would have been a nice thing for the first lady. Physical fitness and fighting obesity are important, but getting kids reading is fundamental.”
Beyond the education system, Patterson is concerned about the health of the publishing industry. “It’s important that publishers stay strong in this current age and don’t get run over and pushed out of business,” he says. “They do a lot of good things now. They nourish a lot of writers. Internet publishers have not demonstrated that that’s where the next ‘Ulysses’ will come from. If ‘Ulysses’ came out right now online, you’d get the first four reviews: ‘F: Unreadable.’ Maybe someday it will work, but not right now.”
He’s also worried about the challenge that Amazon.com poses to brick-and-mortar retailers. (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) “It’s important that we have bookstores,” he says. “We need these stores. It’s not a good thing that Borders went out of business. The chains, they do good things, too. I’d like to see the big-box stores do an even better job with books. Wal-Mart could be extremely important for a lot of areas where there are no bookstores.”
Snobs may turn up their noses at his best-selling thrillers, but Patterson doesn’t think the literati are holding standards high enough. “At one point, maybe the industry did a better job of celebrating important books,” he says. “Maybe the books seemed like they had a little more substance.”
Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity”?
“I’m not sure that that’s an important book,” he says.
“City on Fire,” by Garth Risk Hallberg?
“I think it’s quite a wonderful book,” he says. “I’m not sure that that’s an important book. But that’s what people are talking about. I don’t see the James Baldwins and the Norman Mailers. I don’t see people saying: ‘I have to read this. This is going to change my view of things.’ ”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.