25 August 2006

the future of american book review & difficulty

Many of us depend on American Book Review to give us an interesting and intelligent window onto what's worth reading and thinking about in the world of innovative prose, poetry, and publishing. Yet, as I mentioned here a few months ago, ABR was recently close to folding after nearly three decades of business for a number of reasons, most of them economic in nature.

Well, I'm happy to report that's no longer the case. ABR has relocated its editorial offices to the University of Houston-Victoria, and Jeffrey Di Leo is its new editor-in-chief and co-publisher. He's in the process of establishing a pool of Associate Editors, myself included, who will help shape the new editorial focus of the magazine and see it into the future. Production, layout, printing, advertising and distribution will remain at Illinois State University under the guidance of co-publisher Charlie Harris and ISU Publications Unit Director Tara Reeser.

"The administration of UHV has been fully supportive of this relocation and has backed their words with a generous financial commitment," Di Leo wrote in a recent letter. "I am confident that ABR is once again on firm footing and is looking forward to a long and promising association with UH-V."

Just as I was celebrating this coup for difficult, demanding texts, I opened the current issue of Scientific American to discover a report by the U. S. Department of Education on literacy in the United States. In a 1992 study, it asked 26,091 Americans to read several texts, and several types of texts—prose, document, and quantitative—and then to demonstrate that they understood them. The study was repeated in 2003.

The news, as you might imagine, isn't good. While scores for African-Americans and women went up, those for many other groups went down. Scores for men, for instance, dropped in the document category by nearly 2%. Scores for Hispanics dropped 7.4%. Scores for high school graduates dropped 2.3%, for college graduates 3.5%, and for those with graduate degrees 3.8%.

"The 2003 study found that at least 12 percent of those surveyed were classified as having, in the terminology of the report, 'below basic' skills,'" the article in SA concluded, "meaning that they could perform no more than the most simple and concrete literacy tasks, such as locating information in short, commonplace texts."

"Those in the next highest literacy group," the article went on, "who were labeled as having 'basic' skills, account for 22 percent of adults. Though somewhat more literate, they are still ill-equipped to compete with the better educated. Together, the two groups–the 'below basic' and 'basic'—make up 34 percent of all adult Americans and should be counted as illiterate by the standards of the information economy. Their illiteracy not only bars them from the better jobs but also limits their participation in political and social life and so contributes to the divisiveness of American society."

Such sobering news leaves me wondering: What do we mean, in this context, when we use such terms as "innovative," "difficult," and "elite"? To and for whom? When? Where? And what does this tell us about the present and future of the innovative project in the States?

In one of his last posts, Jeffrey Deshell asked: "Is it any different now than it has always been? Have we ever been a predominantly literary culture?" Perhaps, given the above report, the answer to the first question is yes, the answer to the second no, but it seems it's going to get a lot worse before it gets a lot worse.