Essay Suite

As you read the passage below, consider how Dana Gioia uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

Adapted from Dana Gioia, “Why Literature Matters” ©2005 by The New York Times Company. Originally published April 10, 2005.

[A] strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously, the interest young Americans showed in the arts—and especially literature—actually diminished.

According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a population study designed and commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts (and executed by the US Bureau of the Census), arts participation by Americans has declined for eight of the nine major forms that are measured....The declines have been most severe among younger adults (ages 18–24). The most worrisome finding in the 2002 study, however, is the declining percentage of Americans, especially young adults, reading literature.

That individuals at a time of crucial intellectual and emotional development bypass the joys and challenges of literature is a troubling trend. If it were true that they substituted histories, biographies, or political works for literature, one might not worry. But book reading of any kind is falling as well.

That such a longstanding and fundamental cultural activity should slip so swiftly, especially among young adults, signifies deep transformations in contemporary life. To call attention to the trend, the Arts Endowment issued the reading portion of the Survey as a separate report, “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.”

The decline in reading has consequences that go beyond literature. The significance of reading has become a persistent theme in the business world. The February issue of Wired magazine, for example, sketches a new set of mental skills and habits proper to the 21st century, aptitudes decidedly literary in character: not “linear, logical, analytical talents,” author Daniel Pink states, but “the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative.” When asked what kind of talents they like to see in management positions, business leaders consistently set imagination, creativity, and higher-order thinking at the top.

Ironically, the value of reading and the intellectual faculties that it inculcates appear most clearly as active and engaged literacy declines. There is now a growing awareness of the consequences of nonreading to the workplace. In 2001 the National Association of Manufacturers polled its members on skill deficiencies among employees. Among hourly workers, poor reading skills ranked second, and 38 percent of employers complained that local schools inadequately taught reading comprehension.

The decline of reading is also taking its toll in the civic sphere....A 2003 study of 15- to 26-year-olds’ civic knowledge by the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded, “Young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship… and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited.”

It is probably no surprise that declining rates of literary reading coincide with declining levels of historical and political awareness among young people. One of the surprising findings of “Reading at Risk” was that literary readers are markedly more civically engaged than nonreaders, scoring two to four times more likely to perform charity work, visit a museum, or attend a sporting event. One reason for their higher social and cultural interactions may lie in the kind of civic and historical knowledge that comes with literary reading....

The evidence of literature’s importance to civic, personal, and economic health is too strong to ignore. The decline of literary reading foreshadows serious long-term social and economic problems, and it is time to bring literature and the other arts into discussions of public policy. Libraries, schools, and public agencies do noble work, but addressing the reading issue will require the leadership of politicians and the business community as well....

Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.

Write an essay in which you explain how Dana Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience that the decline of reading in America will have a negative effect on society. In your essay, analyze how Gioia uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Gioia’s claims, but rather explain how Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience.


Introducing Six Video Essays
curated by John Bresland

The only literary form that can be precisely defined is a dead literary form. Still, it would be comforting to think that the video essay slotted a little more neatly into some genre. If, say, we could call these language-driven visual meditations “nonfiction with pictures we could all log off and get on with our lives. Problem is, that slot’s already been taken—the documentary—and it’s a crowded one.

In any case, the works we’re featuring here are less self-assured than docs. Video essays certainly do engage with fact, but like Chris Marker’s great film essay, Sans Soleil (1982), the clear signposts of nonfiction—facts and reflection in pursuit of some deeper truth—can be enacted within a fictional narrative. And as anybody who watches Oprah can tell you, if you mix fiction with nonfiction, then it becomes fiction—right? Except when it doesn’t. Sans Soleil is an essay, and so, to our way of thinking, is Carl Diehl’s Blobsquatch

One aspect of the video essay that seems unambiguous is that it draws power from documentary tropes, and usually ends up subverting them. Prose poet Claudia Rankine, in a collaboration with filmmaker John Lucas, works in a visual form familiar to anyone who watches sports: the instant replay. The point of the replay being, of course, to make truth visible. Which is exactly what Rankine and Lucas pull off in Zidane, but in a way you’ll never see on ESPN. And in The Wren, a work of and about poetry, Penny Lane and Jessica Bardsley do away with the documentary tendency to illustrate language with image, or vice versa, by using language as image.  

If the essay has been, for thousands of years, a means for writers to figure something out on the page, the video essay is that, too, on the screen. These works can be short and songlike—John Bresland’s object essay, Mangoes, about his visceral fear of the BabyBjörn® comes to mind. Or they can take their time, turning gradually inward as Marilyn Freeman explores her own Catholic consciousness in Baptism, a memoir of stunning visual and aural beauty that borrows from the structure of the Seven Holy Sacraments.

Regardless of runtime, the video essay requires a story. That story may take the form of a narrative, a sequence of events, or it may be a meditation in which “the story” is really the tension generated—to paraphrase essayist Phillip Lopate—by an author working through some mental knot. Notes on Liberty, John Scott’s video essay, combines those two modes, meditation and narrative, to great effect.

We believe that what unites the video essay form is that it places equal literary emphasis on language and image and sound. That is to say, the image does not exist merely to illustrate the text; the text does not merely illustrate the image; and so on. Instead, we believe that in all of these works, there is a degree of distance between what is said and what is shown and what is heard, and within that distance, the audience is allowed its own ample share of imaginative space.  


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