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Modern man of letters

Culture | NEA chairman Dana Gioia took a bequest of books seriously enough to shape forever his life and art

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

With a working-class background in California, Dana Gioia didn't look destined to lead a national literacy movement. Of Sicilian descent, his father seldom read books. Nor did his mother, of Mexican heritage, though she did read periodicals and recited poetry to him while he was young. Gioia grew up speaking Italian in a Mexican neighborhood in Hawthorne, Calif.

An uncle's premature death left Gioia's family with books filling the shelves of their apartment. Gioia now credits those books for his intellectual development, two master's degrees and a career as a writer of prose and poetry. In 2003 he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

From there he's led a crusade for books, promoting influential NEA studies warning about a decline in reading. The agency's Big Read program recommends books and supplies teaching materials for community-wide programs, usually through public libraries. The goal is to restore book reading as a primary cultural influence.

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Looking back, Gioia, 58, attributes his literary leadership to those shelves of academic and classic books in the apartment.

"Everything else in that gritty working-class neighborhood had nothing to do with artistic or intellectual life," he said in an interview. Even so, he became a bookworm, using the local public library, but keeping it secret from his friends lest he get taunted as a nerd. He had a secret literary life. Gioia recalls a tough childhood, but lacking some of today's challenges. "Childhood was slower before cable television, video games, DVDs, and the internet. Kids had time on their hands," he recalls. "We had to entertain ourselves, which meant exploring every possible means of amusement our circumscribed lives afforded. I paged through every book on every shelf, however unlikely its appeal."

Gioia went on to an unusual blended career, first as a top executive with General Foods, after receiving an MBA from Stanford. He stepped off the fast business track to write full-time at age 42 in 1992. He made his mark as a poet in the New Formalist tradition, writing poetry with definite structure.

What Gioia didn't realize was how his childhood experience would be verified in an NEA reading study. Books in the home, even if they aren't necessarily read by the parents, promote better scores not only in English, but also in science and math.

The NEA study indicated that shelves of books are more important than income or parental educational background. Homes with 10 or fewer books yield the lowest test scores, and the scores increase steadily with more books in the home, in history, civics, math, and science. The issue is not income, according to the study, or even whether the parents have a college education. "Students of high-school-educated parents living in homes with more than 100 books outscored students with college--educated parents and 0-10 books at home," the study notes.

"A poor family, with books in the house, will produce a child, on the average, who will do better in those subjects than a rich kid with no books in the house," Gioia added. "The data just shows the power of the home environment."

Kids, by nature, are inquisitive, and as Gioia learned, just seeing some books on the shelves around home can launch a life of reading that opens many other doors.

But it's even better when parents-and adults who love children-take those books off the shelves and read them aloud to young children.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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