In a recent piece in the UK Guardian, Philip Hensher proclaims, "This should feel like a golden age for readers, but it feels like the end of the days." My first reaction was to attribute Hensher's opinion to that unique brand of gloomy English misanthropy that we all find so endearing — but he has a point. Specifically, Hensher claims that technology is transforming book reading into a "specialist activity" that degrades literature, commodifies books, and cheapens the sublime pleasures of reading.
He closes his piece with a suggestion. "Doctors, currently, operate to an official recommendation of no more than 21 units of alcohol (for men) a week, no less than five pieces of fruit or vegetable a day. Why shouldn't the government encourage the simple question: 'Are you reading enough?'"
It's a fair question, but one that we doubt will be uttered from the lips of Uncle Sam anytime soon. But hope is not lost. We Americans have the National Book Foundation.
Each year, the foundation "recognizes individuals and institutions that have developed innovative means of creating and sustaining a lifelong love of reading." In addition to promoting the best of American literature through the National Book Awards, the foundation seeks to expand the audience for literature in America.
And so the foundation is seeking nominations for its seventh annual Innovations in Reading Prize. The $10,000 prize recognizes "individuals and institutions that use particularly innovative methods to generate excitement and a passionate engagement with books and literature," who "will be rewarded for their creativity and leadership."
The winner will show a proclivity for "creativity, risk-taking, and a visionary quality," as well as a "new approach to presenting books and literature." Priority will be given to applications from individuals and institutions that have "developed interdisciplinary approaches and incorporate innovative thinking in design, technology, social change, social entrepreneurship, and other fields." Potential candidates can enter themselves for consideration or be nominated by others.
Why is this prize so important? For an answer, we turn to the American writer Richard Price. In a recent interview with the Times Sunday Book Review, Price was asked, "Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?" His answer was telling. "As for the last book I put down without finishing," Price said, "that would be 85 percent of the books I try to read online. The iPad has given me literary ADHD. It’s just too easy to sit there after too much coffee and buy six books in six minutes, then wind up restlessly flitting from book to book in my e-library like a hyperactive loon."
Price's dilemma acutely speaks to Philip Hensher's aforementioned fear and the importance of the National Book Foundation's prize, which seeks to make reading accessible, relevant, and meaningful in an increasingly harrowing literary ADHD world.