A few weeks ago the White House released a budget proposal that called for the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. In response, Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, posted a photo of a stack of books Instagram. The caption read, “What do these amazing books have in common (other than being amazing)? All of these authors and creators have in some part been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts!”
Devoted readers have a fiercely intimate relationship with books. We’ve grown up with them. We surround ourselves with them in our homes, our schools, and our offices. We bring them to bed with us. We turn to them when we’re in need and they are always there for us. In books, we see ourselves and we experience the world through the eyes of others. Books shape our individual identity and increase our empathy.
Human beings are storytellers. We document who we are, where we have been, and where we are going in words and pictures. Civilizations survive through the stories they leave behind. If someone threatens our books, we will fight to defend them.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
When the National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965, a group of visionary artists and writers including Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, and John Steinbeck were appointed to its advisory board. They proposed the development of a program to provide grants to creative writers, and the first literature fellowships were awarded in 1968. In the fifty years hence, funding from the NEA has made it possible for the likes of Alice Walker, Sherman Alexie, Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Bukowski, Jacqueline Woodson, Adam Johnson, Sandra Cisneros, Tobias Wolff, T.C. Boyle, and dozens of other American novelists and poets to hone their craft.
Since 1990, more than sixty percent of the winners of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and Fiction have been previous NEA Literature Fellows. The majority of these writers won their NEA fellowship early in their career, usually a decade or more before publishing an award-winning book.
The NEA invests in the future of our culture so that all Americans can reap the benefits. Like any investment, it comes at a cost. But the cost is shockingly insignificant compared to all government spending: the NEA’s budget of $148 million accounts for 0.003% of the federal budget. If you had a yearly salary of $50,000, the equivalent hit to your bank account would be $1.50 per year.
Sure, you might argue, but investments have risk. Not every NEA fellow will become the next Great American Novelist—we’re gambling away our tax dollars! Spend thirty seconds browsing through the list of past recipients and it becomes clear that this is a horse to bet on. Erica Jong received a $5,000 fellowship in 1974 and used the money to finish Fear of Flying, a classic. John Kennedy Toole’s novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, was published posthumously with the help of a $3500 grant and won the Pulitzer Prize. And while we’re on the subject of Pulitzers, let’s not forget Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, or Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.
Oh, and last week’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, Tyehimba Jess? Yep, NEA grant recipient. Imagine if these authors had not been given an opportunity to write. Imagine if 3 out of 5 award-winning books did not exist. While you’re at it, imagine Washington D.C. without the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Broadway without Hamilton, and public schools without arts education. Americans have so much to lose by cutting off a mere trickle of support for the next generation of writers, artists, and luminaries. As readers, we are on the front lines of this battle.
In the mid-2000s when the rise of eReaders threatened to wipe out print, book lovers roared in protest and publishers upped their production game. As a result, we are living in a golden age of book design. From Coralie Bickford-Smith’s Clothbound Classics and Jessica Hische’s Drop Caps series to Anna Bond’s illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the magical transformation of Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast by Minalima, mass-produced hardcovers have become literal works of art. Browse the new fiction table at any bookstore today and you will bask in beautiful cover design.
When the collapse of Borders threatened to wipe out the entire business of bookselling, communities rallied around small independent bookstores. Year-over-year book sales have been on the rise since 2014, and authors like Ann Patchett (Parnassus Books, Nashville) and Judy Blume (Books & Books, Key West) have opened bookstores in their local communities to ensure that residents had unfettered access to books. Last fall, when author Emma Straub learned that her neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn was closing, she and her husband decided to take matters into their own hands. She writes, “A neighborhood without an independent bookstore is a body without a heart. And so we’re building a new heart.” Their new store, Books are Magic, is slated to open any day now.
Independent bookstores and public libraries have long been community centers, sanctuaries for free speech, and a refuge for people in need. As protests and riots raged in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library opened its doors to children and residents who had been displaced by the violence. When schools were closed indefinitely, more than 100 volunteers and teachers transformed the library into a safe haven for students. The Ferguson Library is an exemplar of the services that public libraries across the nation provide for their communities every day.
Most people just think of books if they think of libraries at all, but the resources that public libraries offer go much further. Many families rely on public libraries for the computers they need to complete job applications, research, homework, and online banking. In some rural communities, the library is the only place to access broadband. Libraries offer tax help, small business guidance, literacy programs, translation assistance, voter registration, children’s programs, senior programs, online classes, lectures, gardening clubs, movies, music, and even food and shelter to people in need.
According to the American Library Association, there are 123,000 libraries in the United States and more than 170 million Americans rely on them. If an independent bookstore is the heart of a community, then the public library is the blood that flows through its veins.
We can’t afford to lose the cultural institutions that hold our society together and lift us up as a nation. Since ancient times, the arts and humanities have represented the greatest achievements of civilization. Every empire—the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Qing Dynasty, the British, the Russians—has used language and visual arts to memorialize their victories, proclaim their glory, and advance their legacy. Why on earth would the United States government want to forsake our museums and libraries?
We can never take books for granted. We have to fight for our right to read, for our public libraries, for the rights of children to have access to books. Shelve alternative facts under fiction and read like your life depends on it. Because who wants to live in a world without books?
From April 17–23, Penguin Random House is partnering with Save the Children to help young readers in North America get access to free books. During #ProjectReadathon, you can unlock book donations to communities in need just by reading free, timed excerpts from Penguin Random House books and authors. The more you read, the bigger impact you make: read a 20-minute excerpt and you’ll unlock a 5-book donation, or read 120 minutes and you’ll unlock 60 books.
Join the Million Minutes campaign at ReadWell.PenguinRandomHouse.com, and stand up for books, for communities in need, and heck, for civilization. Rise up and read!
Featured image: Mascha Tace/Shutterstock.com