One of the features of our current reading crisis is that no one can agree if it even exists.
Jennifer Shuessler at the Nytimes points with a notable degree of exhaustion at the fact that everyone and their mother seems to be talking about a crisis in reading. The tendency is, I suppose, to be jaded and assume that there is no crisis whatsoever, that it is all hype. A problem in a culture of hype is that when there really is something to pay attention to, we can’t distinguish between the reality and hype. Because we know there is hype, and can’t be sure there’s reality, we tend to think that every new publicized concern is more an issue of publicity than concern.
Shuessler points to Ursula LeGuin’s essay in Harpers, where she makes the case that serious readers have never been more than a minority anyway, so why worry.
“Self-satisfaction with the inability to remain conscious when faced with printed matter seems questionable. But I also want to question the assumption—whether gloomy or faintly gloating—that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?”
This strikes me as an instance of jaded cynicism rather than ethical or cultural seriousness unless one views the reading of books as, already, a cultural option of little personal or social consequence. What, Le Guin would also say, then, that it makes no difference that millions of people have a literacy level that can, at best, consume comic books? So they can’t read Toni Morrison? Who cares? Well, I guess this is a position.
More seriously, Shuessler points to Caleb Crain’s blog that points out the many and diverse statements of readerly crisis that have been ongoing throughout the 20th century. Indeed, as I’ve suggested on this blog before, it’s possible to argue that imagining reading in crisis is a condition of reading in Western culture. How those crises are imagined may say a great deal more about the culture than they say about reading, but it is interesting nonetheless. In earlier centuries people worried that too many people were reading, then we believed that the wrong people were reading, then we worried that people read the wrong books. In the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, sociologists worried that people read too much, especially men. Since then, we’ve worried that people weren’t reading enough, a crisis that continues apace with renewed vigor in our own era.
I picked up the following titles from quick survey of article titles in the Saturday Review of Literature from mid-century. With a few adjustments, we could imagine them all coming out of interpretations of the latest NEA study.
“Why is it so difficult to interest reading public in good books?” (December 1 1934) p. 324
(Of course, now we are mostly worried about getting them interested in reading books at all. Even Rush Limbaugh. Bill O’Reilly? Please? Anything to ease my mind.)
“Bookless mind.” (November 10 1934) p. 272
(This is absolutely my favorite)
“Influence of books on people who do not read.” (July 24 1937) p. 13.
(I’m assuming this works something like radiation. Rub up next to me and let my literacy rub right off on you.)
“Can college graduates read?” (July 16 1938) p. 3-4+
(The resounding answer in 2007 tends to be no.)
“What a capitalist reads [one man’s literary meat].” (December 4 1943) p. 12-15
(No, I think this is my absolute favorite. I wonder, what is one man’s literary poultry? fruits and vegetables? A new Borgesian system of book classification is in the offing)
“Only half of us read books.”(August 5 1950) p. 22
“How to get time to read a book.”(September 29 1951) p. 5
(And this was before the internet, ipods, and tivo. It truly is miraculous we read at all if they worried about this in an era with three tv channels in black and white)
“Don’t Americans read or write?. “(July 14 1951) p. 24-5.
(No, maybe this is, after all, my truly absolute favorite. Did Americans in 1951 really care what people in Lahore, Pakistan thought about us . This was before the bomb and Osama bin Laden, after all.)
As with hype, the recognition that reading has always been in crisis mode tempts us to think there is no crisis to worry about. Perhaps so. I’m more intrigued by why it is that reading must always be an occasion for crisis. Why have cultures always been so determined that reading is fenced in with all the right cultural taboos or mandates: done in just the right amounts, done by just the right people or by all the people, done with just the right books, carried forward in just the right ways—whether through academic classrooms or community enhancing book clubs.
One tentative hypothesis works better for theories worrying about social control. Reading’s essential isolation means that it must always remain an issue of concern and crisis for human sociality. I say essential isolation, because reading is always an act of the individual mind decoding for oneself. Even when one is reading aloud to others, listeners must affirm an act of faith that what is being read is what is on the page—easier in our age. Not so easy in antiquity where, for instance, in ancient Israel some towns were lucky to have even one person read. Reading’s essential isolation calls in to question or puts our necessary human sociality in to question.
Still, this works better for those eras that worried that the wrong people were reading, or that people were reading too much, or that people were reading the wrong things. Maybe we are in the ironic position in our own era of having become comfortable with the ways we’ve negotiated what was formerly a form of textual chaos. The book has been more or less tamed? The new chaos, the new threat, is the uncontrolled proliferation of text on the internet?
I’m not sure I go with this. A thought experiment. I still think books are less tame than they are sometimes assumed to be by digital utopians. I have yet to be changed by a web page in the ways that I have been changed by dozens of experiences with books that I can point to.
Books are old, but they don’t seem tame. Not yet. Not to me.