My God! Somebody gets it!

Last week, the NEA issued a report, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America." The report lamented the decline of the reading of novels and poetry and such in America. The reports about the report lamented the same thing. Party line about reading is that it is always a good thing in itself.

Carlin Romano’s column in the Chronicle of Higher C. examined the report, and found some of the statistics not so dire. That is interesting, but what rivets yours truly, a book reviewer who desperately wants out of the trade, is the end of Romano’s article. I could hardly believe it. They are almost word for word what I have been telling people forever – in fact, what I told the book editor at the Austin Chronicle just last week. 
"Almost nothing in our culture," the distinguished New York book editor Elisabeth Sifton memorably observed in a Harper's symposium years ago, "encourages the private moment of reading."I love that line. I also believe in its ironic, absurdist corollary: "Almost nothing in the modern American newspaper and magazine encourages the private moment of reading." Owners slash space for book reviews and coverage at the same time that they bemoan their own loss of readers. Then they order the remaining readers to do anything -- ANYTHING -- but read in their spare time. True, the three highest-circulation seven-day-a-week newspapers in America are also the three with the most powerful book coverage. But the NEA isn't worried in "Reading at Risk" about beneficiaries of the enlightened managers of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.So we're left with a general media environment in which the readerly commit a kind of cultural suicide in pursuit of the less readerly. In magazine and newspaper offices across the country, well-educated editors stuff their publications with pieces about trash movies, hip-hop hotties, reality-TV spinoffs, and ingénue profiles -- then go home and read a book. As print people drive their hordes toward nonprint media, TV folks -- supposedly a dimmer breed -- cleverly ignore the competition, rarely acknowledging what's in the local papers and almost never devoting a minute to a nonpresidential book.”

LI wrote something similar to the book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where Romano works, a few years ago. That editor had written us a very depressing letter about the state of book reviewing – based on the cuts he had to make in the section’s size – and we wrote back:

“That is sad, X… The ice age is all around us, I'm afraid. I hope that after this terrible quarter is over and advertising resumes at some reasonable level, papers will resume running their cultural sections. I don't think that is just optimism -- I mean, books are not only a 20 billion dollar industry in themselves, but they generate movies, music, the public discourse -- they have incalculable benefits. Ironically, just as corporations are discovering intangible assets, i.e. the intricate web of know how among their employees -- newspapers are doing their best to pretend that books, which are the body and substance of that know-how, are a minor part of the whole, dispensable extras. They are cutting their own throats. Those people who don't read books will stop reading newspapers. That's a Q.E.D. To encourage a lively book page is to seed the newspaper readers of the future.”
Michael Dirda’s piece on the report in the WP today is less thought provoking.  
Dirda says some smart things in the piece, and some stupid things. The smart thing he says is that the literate person can’t just read today’s best sellers. Reading a book that was published this year, without having any knowledge of books that have been written over the centuries, is like examining an ice cube without any knowledge of water. The dumb thing he says is that the Internet is hogging reading time with its daily plethora of boring, trivial matter. Weblogs and such. He makes this charge in spite of the fact that he confesses to not using the Web much.

If he did use the web, then he would discover that, in fact, the Internet has reanimated literary life in ways the survey is designed not to show. When I lived in Gwinnett County Georgia a few years ago I discovered that if I went to the County’s main library and looked for, say, Mill on the Floss, I was shit out of luck – as my pap used to say. The books on display dealt with astrology, investing in real estate, the romances  of Princess Di, and how Jesus could save you from perversion, alcoholism, and bad teeth. The one thing that was systematically absent from the shelves were books (saving the Bible) that had been written earlier than say 1980.

So I went home and looked it up on the web. Sure enough, I found a copy of Mill on the Floss on a Princeton U. site. There is now a national library – in fact, there are several. There is Gutenberg. There is Black Mask. There is the Liberty Library. There is There are Athena, ABU, Gallica, Les Classiques des sciences socials, etc. etc. Dirda instances his recent reading of Clarissa to show how important it is to read in depth – but where are you going to get a copy of Clarissa in Dothan, Alabama? in Niles, Michigan? In Nederland, Texas? You will get it here

The instrumental interpretations of the report are interesting, as far as they go. But LI has long been interested in the fate of reading literature in a modernity characterized by a systematic hostility to ritual. If one uses Victor Turner’s definition of ritual - "prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings and powers" – it describes at least one aspect, a very important one, of reading novels and poems. And it also helps one get a grip upon the ambivalent triumph of the novel over the poem in the in the West – in France, Britain, and the U.S. –  that makes Americans, provincially, believe that poetry is some romantic remnant form. That isn’t true – if you ever talk to Russians, or Bulgarians, or Turks, or Arabs, you soon realize that cultures differ in their preferred literary form, with some cultures being poetry cultures (Turkey, for instance), some novel cultures (the U.S.) and some mixed (Russia). We think that the decline in reading has to be thought of in conjunction with what reading does. Romano points out that there is really a shift in the place of reading, with the survey’s exclusion of reading in the classroom and at work being, perhaps, an overlooked factor in the overt decline in non-leisure reading.  We will do another post about reading and ritual soon.