According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018 around a quarter of American adults reported that they had not read a whole, or part of, a book in the last year. This statistic points to a lack of engaged adult readers, which is a problem that the National Book Foundation seeks to remedy.
On March 20, dean of the College of Arts and Science Richard Greenwald, Ph.D. introduced Lisa Lucas, the current executive director of the NBF. She delivered a talk entitled, “The Need for Literature in Politically Challenging Times.” The lecture was well attended by students filling the Dolan School of Business dining room.
As he was introducing her, Dr. Greenwald revealed that he actually met Lucas eight years ago at the Brooklyn Book Festival working on the literary council. Lucas began her talk with a brief history of the foundation, which bestows the National Book Award on selected literary works. The award is given every year based on secret and varying criteria decided by the judges of that year, who deliberate independently of the foundation.
During her speech, Lucas described the attention she received when she was hired to the position as the organization’s both first female and first African American director. When her position as executive director was announced, to Lucas’ surprise, it attracted a wave of media coverage. Contrasting herself with the previous executive directors Lucas quipped, “I was a young black woman who took over a job primarily held by white men preparing for Medicare.”
Some students appreciated the weight of such a historic event in publishing. “Seeing a woman of color being the boss is super cool,” commented Troy Trauger ‘18.
Lucas detailed her winding path to the NBF, “I actually started in theatre and then I moved to film and then I moved to the magazine ‘Guernica.’ I got really excited about books in a professional way, despite the fact that I had been a walking-while-reading reader for many years.”
Further on in her talk, Lucas briefly described the history of the NBF. The organization was created in 1950 as a tool of the publishing industry in an effort sell more books. It was not until the mid 1980’s that the foundation became a non-profit and took a form similar to the organization we see today. “We were no longer just about selling books, we were about making sure that people care about books,” Lucas recounted.
“There are a lot of organizations, institutions, universities, colleges that focus on the writer… But what is there that says, ‘how do we help you become a reader?’ Not to teach you how to read but to love, access and know what books to read,” Lucas elaborated.
First-year Julia Kiefer praised this distinction, “I thought it was interesting how she played into that it’s not just a writer’s world, it’s about the readers too. I don’t like writing, but I love to read.”
Lucas went on to argue the importance of literature in our daily lives. She discussed how literature gives people greater insight into the lives of others. This ability to empathize with others, Lucas maintained, is a dire skill needed in the current polarizing political climate.
Trauger agreed with her argument, “I thought she had an interesting idea of how literature is one of the best things for today’s political climate because it gives readers a window into someone else’s life experiences.”
In the current political environment it can be difficult to empathize with fellow people. “…I feel like so many people right now are focusing on the bad stories and on the stories that are highlighting the flaws of our country, the flaws of our leaders and of american citizens. I think it’s important that she was talking about how stories can have the opposite effect and we need to be focusing on the stories and the literature that will change our mind,” explained Kayla Yaverski ‘21.