Ex­pand­ing the Au­di­ence for Books

Poets and Writers - - Trends - –GILA LYONS

The Na­tional Book Foun­da­tion (NBF) is per­haps best known for the Na­tional Book Awards, one of the big­gest an­nual events in lit­er­a­ture since it be­gan in the 1950s. But $1.4 mil­lion in new grant money will help the folks be­hind the NBF prove the or­ga­ni­za­tion is more than just an awards show. “The awards are great and make a big im­pact, but one night is not how you make read­ers or ex­pand au­di­ence,” says NBF ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Lisa Lu­cas. “There are peo­ple who aren’t plugged into the next new read. Not ev­ery com­mu­nity is sup­plied with on­go­ing cul­tural events and artists do­ing read­ings and events. In­clu­siv­ity is about be­ing in as many places as pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially where there isn’t a lot of pro­gram­ming.”

The non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, which seeks to “cel­e­brate the best lit­er­a­ture in Amer­ica, ex­pand its au­di­ence, and en­sure that books have a prom­i­nent place in Amer­i­can cul­ture,” an­nounced in May that it will put the $1.4 mil­lion to­ward ex­pand­ing NBF Presents, a se­ries of pub­lic pro­grams for re­gions and pop­u­la­tions with lim­ited ac­cess to lit­er­ary events and re­sources. By part­ner­ing with li­braries, schools, fes­ti­vals, and per­for­mance venues across the United

States over the next three years, NBF Presents will host a se­ries of ini­tia­tives to con­nect lit­er­a­ture to cul­tural and so­cial is­sues and ex­pand ac­cess to books.

The NBF re­ceived $900,000 from the An­drew W. Mel­lon Foun­da­tion, along with ad­di­tional fund­ing from the Art for Jus­tice Fund, the Ford Foun­da­tion, and the New York City De­part­ment of Cul­tural Af­fairs, among other in­sti­tu­tions. “A lot of peo­ple mak­ing these grants un­der­stand the power of in­for­ma­tion and arm­ing peo­ple with ac­cess to all kinds of in­for­ma­tion,” Lu­cas says. “It’s not just about re­gional iso­la­tion or low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties; ev­ery­one needs a lit­tle push to­ward the book, to­ward the emo­tional and prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits of read­ing.” The Pew Cen­ter re­ported in March that 24 per­cent of Amer­i­can adults did not read a book in the pre­vi­ous year. The aim of NBF Presents is to im­prove that per­cent­age and to re­mind peo­ple of the power of read­ing: “We be­come more em­pathic, bet­ter in­formed, more aware of the po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal con­text of our lives,” says Lu­cas.

This year NBF Presents will fo­cus its pro­gram­ming on mass in­car­cer­a­tion, the work of James Bald­win, and New York City writ­ers and artists. One of the pro­gram’s ini­tia­tives, Lit­er­a­ture for Jus­tice, will bring to­gether a coali­tion of writ­ers to rec­om­mend books that will help peo­ple bet­ter un­der­stand the prob­lem of mass in­car­cer­a­tion in the United States. “When you read a whole book, and spend ten or four­teen hours with a text, it be­comes part of you,” Lu­cas says. “We feel like lit­er­a­ture has the ca­pac­ity to change hearts and minds.” The pro­gram will re­lease the read­ing list in Septem­ber and start host­ing events in Oc­to­ber.

In mid-Au­gust the NBF launched its Au­thor in Fo­cus pro­gram, a se­ries of events that cen­ter on the work of a dif­fer­ent au­thor each year, be­gin­ning with James Bald­win. The NBF has part­nered with Vel­vet Film, which pro­duced the 2016 Bald­win doc­u­men­tary I Am Not Your Ne­gro, to host na­tion­wide ed­u­ca­tional and pub­lic pro­gram­ming fo­cused on con­nect­ing Bald­win’s work to cur­rent so­cial is­sues. And in June the

foun­da­tion kicked off its Notes From the Read­ing Life event se­ries, co­p­re­sented with the New York Pub­lic Li­brary. The pro­gram hosts dis­cus­sions in the Bronx, Man­hat­tan, and Staten Is­land, pair­ing non­lit­er­ary celebri­ties like artists, ac­tors, and co­me­di­ans with au­thors to talk about books, which are then avail­able to at­ten­dees. Four events took place this June, pair­ing co­me­dian De­sus Nice and critic Re­becca Car­roll, writ­ers Alexan­dra Klee­man and Alex Gil­varry, fash­ion ex­pert and TV per­son­al­ity Tim Gunn and nov­el­ist Min Jin Lee, and art cu­ra­tor Thelma Golden and nov­el­ist Kait­lyn Greenidge.

The pos­i­tive im­pact of the pro­gram is al­ready vis­i­ble. At the Bronx li­brary event fea­tur­ing Nice and Car­roll, Lu­cas re­ports, “There were an enor­mous num­ber of De­sus fans lis­ten­ing to him talk about read­ing Richard Wright. At the end there was a line of peo­ple sign­ing up for li­brary cards.” That’s the kind of en­gage­ment the Na­tional Book Foun­da­tion hopes to see across its new pro­gram­ming. “I live in a book bub­ble where peo­ple be­lieve in books and feel that in­for­ma­tion and ac­cess is re­ally im­por­tant,” Lu­cas says. “But we can­not speak to just our­selves any­more. Lit­er­a­ture is meant to be dis­sem­i­nated, shared, and val­ued by all.”

TV per­son­al­ity Tim Gunn and nov­el­ist Min Jin Lee at a NBF Presents event in June.

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