Stop the hype! Inflationary reading crisis calls for interest cut

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

(So many???)

“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.

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Blog on, readers, blog on

Sarah Boxer has a review of books on blogging in the most recent issue of New York Review of Books. Ok, at least it’s interesting to me since I am a relative latecomer to blogs and blogdom. In any case, it’s evident that blogs have become a major seller in the book industry, no matter how much those of us who are book aficionados worry that blogs are contributing to the demise of books and reading of books.

Who after all, has time for reading any more. I certainly don’t; I’ve got to get this blog written.

Anyway, a healthy sampling of the industry covered in Boxer’s review. These include, among many others:

We’ve Got Blog: How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture compiled and edited by John Rodzvilla,

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob by Lee Siegel

Republic.com 2.0by Cass R. Sunstein

Blogwars by David D. Perlmutter

The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet by Daniel J. Solove

We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age by Scott Gant

Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World by Hugh Hewitt

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen

Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, foreword by Tom Peters

Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business, and Cultureby David Kline and Dan Burstein

I’ve read none of these save for some excerpts on the web, but what I can gather from the titles and from those excerpts, as well as from a few extant interviews with several of these authors, most of them view the blogosphere with some fear and loathing. From what I’ve seen, this is unfair, but I did pick up a couple of good interviews that you can judge for yourselves, a video interview with Lee Siegel and a radio interview with Daniel Solove.

Get the interview with Solove here

Anyway, back to Boxer’s review. I’m most interested in what she has to say about the ways in which blogs change writing and reading. This, after all, is why I got started on this blog in the first place, thinking that it would be an interesting way to keep myself writing and thinking about reading—thinking all the while that I would be pointing toward a conventional book. I still think that, but I’m not quite so sure about how natural or inevitable the connections are. As one of my colleagues pointed out, we don’t even call it writing. We call it “blogging” as if we had to come up with a different verb to get at the phenomenon itself.

In Boxer’s words:

“Are they a new literary genre? Do they have their own conceits, forms, and rules? Do they have an essence?

“Reading blogs, it’s pretty clear, is not like reading a newspaper article or a book. Blog readers jump around. They follow links. They move from blogs to news clips to videos on YouTube, and they do it more easily than you can turn a newspaper page. They are always getting carried away—somewhere. Bloggers thrive on fragmented attention and dole it out too—one-liners, samples of songs, summary news, and summary judgments. Sometimes they don’t even stop to punctuate. And if they can’t put quite the right inflection on a sentence, they’ll often use an OMG (Oh my god!) or an emoticon, e.g., a smiley face 🙂 or a wink 😉 or a frown 😦 instead of words. (Tilt your head to the left to see the emoticons here.)

“Many bloggers really don’t write much at all. They are more like impresarios, curators, or editors, picking and choosing things they find on line, occasionally slapping on a funny headline or adding a snarky (read: snotty and catty) comment. Some days, the only original writing you see on a blog is the equivalent of “Read this…. Take a look…. But, seriously, this is lame…. Can you believe this?”

I’ve noticed all this, of course, in my own digital peregrinations, and it makes me think that I’m really not writing a blog at all. As I told a friend earlier today, I don’t think I really blog at all. I write too much, there are no pictures—or too few—and I don’t use four letter words with aplomb.

I also use words like “aplomb,” which is a sure sign of geekishness in blogworld.

I am also, in my general estimation, too organized for my own good. Thirty years of English studies have left me incapable of writing in something other than paragraph form. The one sentence paragraph still strikes me as an oxymoron, save for the occasional literary effect.

(Secret confession—I also go back and correct my blog grammar. Cardinal sin, I know, but I can’t help myself. I wish I could throw off subject/verb or number disagreements with the same aplomb—there’s that word again—that I see throughout the blogosphere, but I’m appalled when I find a misplaced modifier and wonder what kind of example I am setting for all those students whose lives are being ruined by poor grammar.)

More seriously though, I do think that the fragmentary and fluid quality of blogging is very different from the things we normally consider when thinking about critical reading and coherent argument. Does this matter? I tend to think it does. My guess is that students increasingly have difficult times making arguments, or having patience with extended arguments elsewhere, because they are more used to the kind of ad hominem and ejaculatory declamations they get on the web. “Dude, check out the moron talking about evolution on YouTube.” Of course, they get this from Bill O’Reilly any more as well, so perhaps we can’t blame blogging.

Secret confession II: I only use the word “ejaculatory” in written prose. Perhaps I am afraid my late adolescent students will start snickering in class. Perhaps I am afraid my inner adolescent will start snickering in class.

I have also noticed the tendency of bloggers to cite and not write. I’m intrigued by this. I see two things happening with the tendency for many blogs to be compilations of text and image pulled in from elsewhere. On the one hand, it’s the part of blogging that’s much more like conversation than it is traditional expository writing. It’s like sitting down with friends and saying, “Dude, check out this cartoon in the newspaper.”

Ok, so most people who use the word “dude” don’t read newspapers anymore, but you get my general drift. This part of blogging is like sharing things with friends. Correlatively, reading blogs is a little bit like sitting down to talk with friends.

The other thing that I think is going on is that the compilations are a kind of sampling. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, there’s a sense in which texts and images in the current world are more like raw materials that have to be compiled in new and interesting ways. Just as collage is interesting partly for the individual elements, but even more for the way those bits come together in a new whole. Whereas writing has usually been conceived of as commentary on or representation of an external world, there’s a way in which blogs are reorganizations of or recreations of the visual, verbal, and audible text of the internet. The internet is the external world and the blog is its recreation. A kind of perfect self-referentiality to the degree that bloggers eventually start sampling one another, as even I have done in this blog. Bloggers sample other bloggers, and one sign of your importance is the number of times others will say check this out, and then copy your whole blog in to theirs.

Boxer goes on to note the pervasive emphasis in the blogosphere on scatology, pornography, and profane invective. As she puts it.

“Blog writing is id writing—grandiose, dreamy, private, free-associative, infantile, sexy, petty, dirty. Whether bloggers tell the truth or really are who they claim to be is another matter, but WTF. They are what they write. And you can’t fake that. ;-)”

Well, she’s not wrong here, to the degree that I’ve bothered to plough around the blogosphere. On the other hand, I have noticed a generally different tone in blogs devoted to books and reading. They generally don’t get their work done with profanity or inane references to enlarged or swollen body parts. It may be that I don’t get out enough, but I see no books-and-reading bloggers out there making their way by telling people they disagree with to go do an anatomically impossible act to themselves or by telling the authors whose books they dislike to put their texts where the sun don’t shine.

(You see, I am far to polite, discreet, and refined to even spell out the bad words)

Seriously though, it seems to me that Boxer is wrong to make as grand and encompassing a characterization as she does. Blogs strike me as being as various as …well…books or conversation. Different regions of the blogosphere develop different tendencies and propensities, different likes and dislikes. One thing I like about blogs on books is that they don’t pretend that using profanity is somehow inherently useful, don’t assume that dirty jokes necessarily communicate anything worth thinking about, don’t assume that being shocking is the same thing as being insightful.

My guess is that book readers have reconciled themselves to their anonymity and have less need to be noticed on their blogs. By contrast, some bloggers are the internet equivalent of Brittany Spears. Anything to get attention.

I have no proof of any of this, but it seems to me that blogging is something like a third sphere, something different from either orality or literacy. Combining some aspects of both, but going beyond either with its nearly infinite ability to play the bricoleur.

AT least this is what I see as the possibility. I am a hopeless essayist. I need to let out my inner id. Let the blog flow. Death to the paragraph. Vive la Fragment. Spoken with a good French accent.

Reading and Redemption

I saw Atonement last night, the Oscar-nominated film based on Ian McEwan’s award winning novel. I’m kind of vaguely interested in what happens to novels when they become films, but more so in films and novels that are in some way about the process of reading and writing. I have no idea about McEwan’s novel itself—I hope I can get to it someday—but I found the conceptual interaction between visual and textual storytelling—between viewing and reading—very layered and complex in the film. To some degree compelling, but also troubling.

Because I get to these things about three weeks after everyone’s seen the film, I’m going to assume whoever reads this post has already watched the movie (fair warning if you think the ending is given away). The interplay between reading/viewing and writing/performing is there throughout the film, of course. The main character, Briony, is a budding novelist of 13 whose urgent hormone-driven plays are transparently presented as sublimated efforts to deal with her adolescent crush on a older young man, Robbie, who is in love with her older sister, Cecilia. This love of a young girl for an older man is perversely reversed when another young man about the age of Robbie rapes her young friend.

Briony has seen the rape, but using her well-practiced imagination, and perhaps revenging herself on Robbie for loving her sister instead of her, accuses Robbie of the deed. Briony’s decision to fabricate Robbie’s role is caught in the following clip. Too bad it doesn’t start just a bit earlier, where we see the two girls building a story based on their own fears, needs, and class stereotypes.

“Atonement” is, of course, about whether or not one can atone for the past. Can the past be repaired? Even to some degree, does Briony need to atone for the past? Can a young girl of 13 be held responsible for an act, however reprehensible, that can readily be understood as an act of immaturity rather than an act of adult malice? Even, can any action by a much older and much changed Briony count in any way for atonement of sins by the younger child she resembles but in no way repeats. Are our older selves, in so many ways discontinuous with the children that we were, even capable of repenting for sins that were in some very real sense committed by someone else? This distance is registered in the film by having actresses who are similar in appearance—at least in, implausibly, retaining the same haircut for approximately 60 years—but who are otherwise obviously very different people “playing” the same person. Again, this question of atonement is perversely registered in that the actual adult rapist “atones” for the past by eventually marrying the young girl he raped when she comes of age. While the true agent of brutality goes on to live out the Western mythology of human fulfillment in marriage, Robbie and Cecilia are forever separated by the sins of someone else.

For my purposes I’m interested in the layered question of whether writing and reading—whether an act of and engagement with the imagination—can atone for sins committed in the world. How does the imagination act on the world? This is most pronounced in the conclusion of the film where we cut to a latter-day television interview with an elderly and ill Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who has just written her final novel, final because she has realized that she has incurable and progressive dementia that is gradually destroying her ability to remember and to use language.

We immediately understand as viewers that the movie we have just been watching is this last novel—rendered visually. We have been the reader/viewers of the novel, which is supposedly autobiographical. However Briony/Vanessa Redgrave informs us that the story didn’t really end as she left it in the scenes we had just seen. Robbie did not return from Europe to be with Cecilia. He died on the beaches of Dunkirk from sepsis. Briony is never reconciled to Cecilia—as the film had just made it appear. Instead, Briony had been too cowardly to find her sister and make the attempt at reconciliation. Cecilia character died in the bombing of London, living alone and estranged from her family because she had refused to believe that Robbie was a rapist and had refused to renounce her love for him.

The elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony explains her decision to give the novel/movie a happy ending for two reasons—readers could not accept the reality, and because the imagined ending was an act of repair, giving Robbie and Cecilia a life of joy together—symbolized by life on Dover Beach—that had eluded them because of Briony’s deception.

The two reasons, I think, work in very different direction, and finally don’t completely hold together. I’m not completely taken with the notion of readers needing the happy ending. It’s true, of course, that Hollywood films and any number of romance novels make their way in the world on the hunger for uncomplicated fantasy. But is it the case that human beings are so unused to the idea that the innocent die while the guilty go free and live happily ever after that we refuse it in our literature? Indeed, isn’t it our literature that teaches us this repeatedly. It feeds the generally tragic sense of reader-geeks that their own nobility is tragically unrecognized in the world at large. It is played out by English professors who grump that their C students get jobs right out of college that pay more than they make as tenured professors.

Still, this notion does comport with the general tenor of the film. Briony’s sin is first and foremost an act of the imagination. She “sees” what she wants to see so that it will reflect her own story in the world. Her refusal to allow the world to be more complicated that her own seeing is the source of her original accusation. In a very real sense, Briony’s imagination is what she must atone for. Imagination is her original sin—her writing is, after all, a particular way of reading the world that refuses to let the world be what it is truthfully. Her imagination is a thirteen-year-old act of violence on the world, and results in very real violence to many people down the line.

And so, can we really buy the elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony’s assertion that she is somehow redeeming the lives of Cecilia and Robbie, giving them what they couldn’t otherwise have in reality? Something she wants to understand as an act of generosity and even love. I’m not sure. To some degree this could be connected with the work of someone like Ernst Bloch who insisted that the utopian function of art was to say “And Yet” to life, to insist that “reality” did not have the final say if that final say was understood to be beyond the act of human agency, human shaping, human imagination. In the same fashion, if atonement is possible, it seems to me that atonement must be an act that includes the imagination.

Still, is this an act that the imagination can carry out in reference to our own actions in the past? No human action is every finished in and of itself. Rather, it is read and reread, and its meaning accrues and changes by the means and contexts through which it is reread. I sometimes tell students I prefer to understand God as a reader than a writer. Redemption is an act of reading and discovering the possibilities in a life-text that could not have been imagined by those individuals and other historical agents who brought that life-text into being in the first place. But I guess what makes me leery of this particular act is Briony’s act of self-justifying imagination. Can Briony atone for the failures of her imagination by another act of the imagination that further falsifies the lives of those that she has damaged, however “innocently” or unknowingly? I tend to think that this isn’t atonement but self-justification.

On the other hand, what we finally get from Briony-Vanessa Redgrave is not imagination as atonement, but a very different secularized Christian practice—Confession. Briony apparently tells the truth to the reader at the end of the story, and the reader/viewer is the only person in the position to forgive. Briony’s confession of what actually happened is, at least putatively, something that removes her own imagination as an agent in her own redemption. She no longer writes someone different from who she is, but says who she is and what she has done and failed to do, and what the consequences have been. The production of art that moves a reader is no compensation for the evil that produces it. But the frank confession of the truth is a work of art in which we recognize ourselves. We forgive her because we see in her all the unthinking dishonesties by which we have harmed others and ourselves. In her need for us, we recognize our own need for forgiving readers.

Reading Humour (No Smiling Allowed)

The Librarian And Information Science News blog called my attention back to The Onion, which I used to read religiously, but haven’t been back to in a number of years. Once there I found some really hysterical stuff on reading that they’ve put out over the last few years. Some excerpts of the better articles I ran across in just the first fifty or so articles out of about 500 the search engine called up are below. A few laughs for sure, but I’m glad to see that The Onion is still using the laughter for some thoughtful cultural commentary.

Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book
January 19, 2008 | Issue 44•03

GREENWOOD, IN—Sitting in a quiet downtown diner, local hospital administrator Philip Meyer looks as normal and well-adjusted as can be. Yet, there’s more to this 27-year-old than first meets the eye: Meyer has recently finished reading a book.

Even outdoors, Meyer can’t seem to think of anything better to do than flip through some American classic.

Yes, the whole thing.

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Even more bizarre, Meyer is believed to have done most of his reading during his spare time—time when the outwardly healthy and stable resident could have literally been doing anything else, be it aimlessly surfing the Internet, taking a nap, or simply just staring at his bedroom wall.

“It’d be nice to read it again at some point,” Meyer continued, as if that were a perfectly natural thing to say.

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According to behavioral psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Schulz, Meyer’s reading of entire books is abnormal and may be indicative of a more serious obsession with reading.

“Instead of just zoning out during a bus ride or spending hour after hour watching YouTube videos at night, Mr. Meyer, unlike most healthy males, looks to books for gratification,” Schulz said. “Really, it’s a classic case of deviant behavior.”

=====

As bizarre as it may seem, Meyer isn’t alone. Once a month, he and several other Greenwood residents reportedly gather at night not only to read books all the way through, but also to discuss them at length.

“I don’t know, it’s like this weird ‘book club’ they’re all a part of,” said Brian Cummings, a longtime coworker and friend of Meyer’s. “Seriously, what a bunch of freaks.”:

Comment: I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that recognizes reading is deeply related to deviant psychological profiles. See my post on this very subject.

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Reading-Is-Fundamentalists Slaughter 52 Illiterates
October 29, 1997 | Issue 32•13

ROCKVILLE, MD—Militant pro-literacy terrorists struck here Friday night, as a pipe bomb exploded at Rockville Adult Learning Annex, killing 52 illiterates and injuring dozens more. Hours later, RIF, a radical reading-is-fundamentalist terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the attack.

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According to the group’s 900-page manifesto, RIF is committed to fighting illiteracy by “first-hand targeting of illiterates.” The manifesto also outlines a three-point plan to achieve its goals by “speaking to schoolchildren about the importance of reading, lobbying Congress for increased funding for literacy-awareness programs, and banishing illiterates to the very bowels of Hell.”

=====

In addition to using terror, RIF has sought to eradicate illiteracy via a series of spots airing on Saturday-morning television, in which a hooded, armed representative of the faction warns children to read “as if your life depends on it—for it does.” The group has also distributed videotapes to over 3,700 U.S. elementary schools featuring footage of abducted illiterates being shot in the back of the head by RIF members, followed by a music video, “Reading Is Where It’s At,” starring the group’s mascot, Pages The Rappin’ Raccoon.

Comment: Little known fact. My blog is a front for the RIF. We’ve merely been in hiding for the past seven years, lulling illiterates into a false sense of security as they descend in to corruption through non-reading. Somewhat like Islamic terrorists who are largely lead by disaffected members of the elite who have been educated in Western societies, RIF is made up of dedicated readers who once worked for Microsoft and Electornic Arts Incorporated , but then found themselves dismayed at the corruption of the technological world around them and longed for a resurrected and glorified literacy. Well known but as yet unidentified members of our group include John Updike, Doris Lessing, Michael Dirda, and many others who keep Barnes and Nobles in business.

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Books Don’t Take You Anywhere
December 16, 1997 | Issue 32•19

WASHINGTON, DC—A study released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that, contrary to the longtime claims of librarians and teachers, books do not take you anywhere.

“For years, countless educators have asserted that books give readers a chance to journey to exotic, far-off lands and meet strange, exciting new people,” Education Secretary Richard Riley told reporters. “We have found this is simply not the case.”

Comment: As I’ve been saying. PhotoSynth is better anyway.

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Area Man Well-Versed In First Thirds Of Great Literature
April 27, 2005 | Issue 41•17

KANSAS CITY, MO—Malcolm Seward is a 38-year-old commercial kitchen designer, baseball fan, and avid supporter of public radio, but he said there’s nothing he likes better than hunkering down in a comfortable chair, cracking open a brand-new copy of one of the world’s literary classics, and reading the first 100 pages or so.

“Listen, I’m no book snob,” said Seward, settled into his favorite reading chair and running his hand over a nearly half-well-thumbed copy of Pride and Prejudice. “It’s just that I love cracking the binding on a truly good book and reading until I drift off. I’d say it’s something I do two or three times a week.”

Seward, whose bookshelves house over 500 well-regarded and eagerly begun novels, developed his voracious appetite for starting books at a young age.

Comment: Pierre Bayard’s Ideal Reader. See my post on this topic.

Seriously though–who among us does not have to confess that we start or otherwise partially read a great many more books than we actually finish. On my list of books I have not yet finished (and am unlikely ever to do so)

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke–I know it’s supposed to be a masterpiece, but, frankly, after 100 pages, I didn’t care. I’ll wait for the movie.

Anything by Alice Walker since Possessing the Secret of Joy–Does this really need explanation? I’ve even written essays on the woman and can’t bring myself to open her books anymore. The sad fact is that she was a writer worth listening to before she decided it was more important to be a prophet who sounds vaguely like Shirley McLane.

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot–I tried to read this through DailyLit.com. I did. I really truly did. I got tired of trying to find deleted emails that would remind me who these characters were again. I finally decided the characters weren’t worth the effort. I’ll probably try again, both with Dostoevsky and with DailyLit, though not both at the same time.

Toni Morrison’s Jazz–I’m ashamed to admit it, but yes. I’ve started this book at least a dozen times and am bored to tears every single time. Perhaps it’s not her fault. I think Beloved is one of the two or three great novels of the 20th century. Everything since is disappointing even when it’s good. Felt this way about both Paradise and Love. “Good book,” I’d say to myself, “but it’s no Beloved.” Actually, it may be that I finished Jazz at some point. I think I forced myself, but I honestly can’t remember anything about it. In Pierre Bayard’s universe, I may as well not have read it.

Critical Thinking and Cultural Literacy: Or, Is Unmasking Shakespeare Productive Cultural Work?

Ok, a slightly lame way of doing the blog entry today, but I spent a lot of time commenting on Mark Bauerlein’s blog at the Chronicle today, so I thought I’d just copy some of that and expand just a bit on what I had to say there.

In sum, Bauerlein makes the argument that the arguments in favor of critical thinking as a raison d’etre for literary study are really only half the story for professors in the humanities, and perhaps especially in English. The other half is that we need to pass on an appreciation of a cultural tradition.

As a department chair, I’m used to giving the usual run-down on critical thinking in making arguments for English studies. They generally sell well with provosts and deans because they both seem to comport with traditional practices of the humanities while at the same time being a marketable skill to discuss with skeptical external constituencies. On the other hand, I’m not completely convinced that the humanities are the only place to get critical thinking skills. What, they aren’t doing critical thinking in the hard and social sciences? I think we sometimes assume that because different fields investigate different data sets, they are therefore not developing critical thinking. What is an economist doing but attempting to think critically about received wisdom as applied to sets of data in the economy?

Thus, I fully appreciate, while not going all the way with, Bauerlein’s argument that the humanities have to be about familiarizing students with a substantive subject matter and understanding its active or potential value in the world and for themselves. In my own terms, I think that English studies, especially, has to be more than a critical project; it has to be a constructive project as well.

My comments on Bauerlein’s blog were as follows:

I think the comments above that suggest an exclusive identification of literary or humanistic studies with critique has become strangely vacuous are right on the mark. And, in reality, it’s not clear that critique per se has changed very much over the course of the last two or three decades. This is because critique must always have an object of its attention and is therefore always dependent on some kind of received culture.

In an older form of literary study, criticism meant not simple-minded passing on, nor simple-minded tearing apart, but critical evaluation. That is, what is worth passing on, what is worth reading, and for what reasons? The literary academy and the humanities more broadly have almost entirely defaulted on this particular task because to make an affirmative act of construction is to lay oneself open to the, I guess, humiliating preference for deconstruction or other forms of political critique.

In our curriculum I teach both the courses on literary theory and a course on book reviewing, and in both attempt to get students to think in concrete and critical ways about what’s worth reading and why. I have to say that students find the classes incredibly important to them. Far from feeling like the web—with its massive democratization of product and opinion—has done away with the need for discussion of value, they really find it an important question. Why should I spend my time with this book rather than that book? With Mark Bauerlein’s blog instead of Moby Dick? These are theoretical questions, critical questions, and questions that involve themselves in the construction of traditions and cultures rather than simply critiquing them.

In my own view, I think the current explosion of textual matter on the web—whether blogs, or online fictions, or newspapers, or e-books—has created a critical situation very similar to that which existed after the invention of the printing press. In a certain sense, the invention of the press changes the function of criticism. Prior to widely accessible print and the expansion of both reading audience and authorship beyond the narrow confines of the clerisy and aristocracy, criticism more or less existed to catalogue and discuss the characteristics of good writing. This was not, properly speaking, an evaluative project. Things that were published and preserved were, by and large, already considered good. “Criticism,” such as it was, was more a taxonomic affair, describing the goodness that was already known to exist.

After Gutenberg, criticism became the task of defining what, out of the immense amount of material on hand that could be read, really should be read. What was worth preserving? What things being produced by the new class of writer/readers deserved a status similar to that of the ancients as worthy of being preserved? To some degree, we are still at the dawning moment of that part of the internet revolution. What is really worth reading? Even, what is really worth writing? Is a blog worth doing? Is it real writing or is it conversation. Is real thinking going on, or is it ephemeral. To some degree popularity sites like Technorati or Digg that try to apply the democratic impulses of the web to blogs and the like are trying to serve an evaluative function. The wisdom of crowds applied to the function of criticism. Will this work for the long term? I have my doubts. There’s always been a tendency to try to insist that “best-sellers” are those things that are really valuable, but their value hasn’t been sustainable for more than a generation or two. I suspect that we are still working out the function of criticism at the present time. What shape will criticism take? How will we decide what is worth reading and writing. How will we decide what being written—or perhaps we should now simply say, “being produced—on the web are the kinds of things that should be passed down to our children as we attempt the inevitable human activity of forging a common culture.

After a variety of comments for Bauerlein with varying levels of vitriol in play, I followed up on a comment that made the argument that we need to be teaching things that students are comfortable with, but also things that sting them with their unfamiliarity.

My response:

Tim, I wonder in this day and age whether reading almost anything longer than a blog will be, for many students, a de-familiarizing and unsettling experience. That is, one doesn’t have to buy in to all the hype about a reading crisis to recognize that the nature of reading is changing, and the ability to read extended and complex texts has been eroding among college graduates.

Because we are so habituated by our own reading practices and training, we often make deeply flawed assumptions about what students will find de-familiarizing. And, to be honest, we often default to simple-minded notions of unfamiliar cultural content. “De-familiarization” first developed among formalists as a conception of how literary language served to shock readers from their comfortable linguistic frames of reference. On that score, I think we often find that contemporary students find reading much of anything “literary” at all to be unfamiliar, defamiliarizing, and unsettling. Especially so in poetry, but in a different register in long novels and plays they no longer even bother to try and read. Rather than experiencing the sting of defamiliarization in Shakespeare’s Tempest, students are quite as likely to go get the Sparknotes so they can pass the test and even write their essays.

In this kind of reading context, it seems to me that discussions of how to upset the cultural applecart on the basis of whether folks read Shakespeare or not are increasingly arcane and disconnected from cultural realities in which long form reading is taking place. While I agree that the task can’t be a simple passing on of received tradition, I think the cultural situation does call for engaging students with the question of why certain forms of reading may be valuable, and thinking through what texts might be worth the time required for reading them. In other words, the philosophical conception of “The Good” surely can’t be “Whatever has always been.” But it also surely can’t be, “Whatever I decide might make my students talk in class,” or “Whatever an individual wants it to be.” To go this route is, I think, to give up on the question of “The Good” entirely, something I think most students are still unwilling to do.

This is something I find repeatedly in play among literary intellectuals. It’s almost as if we are so hermetically sealed within the discourses and practices of our discipline that we can’t conceive of a world where the fact of reading a book might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar for students. When I raise this problem at conferences, I repeatedly have professors reply by saying “Everyone I know reads.” I want to say “Duh. You work in an English department.”

This fact, I think, calls in to question some of the basic premises of the canon wars that preoccupied folks at Duke while I was there as a grad student in the late eighties and early nineties. In the world that we are entering and are now in, people who read literature as an important part of their cultural lives are a distinct minority group that all have more in common with one another regardless of ethnicity, sexual identity, religion or gender, than they do with other members of their various identity groups—at least insofar as reading is concerned. That is, reading books, and reading literature especially, marks them out as different, as Other from the culture they inhabit–whether we are thinking of an ethnic, a national, a religious or a sexual culture. We need to recognize that we are quickly entering a world, and are already in it, wherein the simple fact of reading Moby Dick or Shakespeare will be a stinging act of defamiliarization that unsettles the cultural life of students.

This doesn’t mean that Bauerlein is right that we need to be passing on a received tradition—though I think students value that more than we sometimes realize. But it certainly does mean that we have to be involved in a constructive project and not simply a critical project.

Photosynth and the Feebleness of Books

One of my very good students, Colin Chrestay, sent me the attached video of a techie at Microsoft showing off this staggering new software–software seems like too mild a word–in development called Photosynth. If you’re only interested in books, you can watch the first two minutes, but watch the whole thing. You really must watch the whole thing.

Stuff like this is just really staggering to me in seeing what is now possible via the web. (My guess is this is old hat to a great many people; but not to me). I don’t know enough about the specifics, and assume that this kind of thing is still a ways away from every person’s fingertips. But the realization that it isn’t inconceivable that every school child could explore every corner of the earth in three dimensions, from every angle and in the minutest detail to the broadest geographic and geological context…well, when I was my son’s age these were the fantasies of Ray Bradbury. I imagine it will be the normal day to day life of my grandchildren.

Re. books, the feebleness of books. Well, I guess I don’t completely think that books are feeble, but this kind of thing just makes clear to me again that there are many things for which the electronic world is clearly superior to anything that book culture could imagine. To insist otherwise does, I think, verge on a snobbish version of luddite-ism.

For instance, when I was growing up on books, a selling point for reading was that books allowed you to experience multiple places and cultures in the world, to travel to places in your imagination that you could never access with your body. And I don’t think there was anything spurious in that claim. But how this raison d’etre pales in comparison to seeing these worlds in three dimensions. Imagine that you wanted to know about mountain climbing in the Himilayas. I am sure there is still a very big place for books on this subject, but how much more impoverished that experience would be for the students who won’t have access to the kind of experience that photosynth can provide.

As a result, it seems to me that we need to think clearly about just what it is that books give us access to in terms of form or content that can’t be accessed in the same way via these kinds of technology. Among other things, of course, we might say that books are a good source for exploring the possibilities of language. And one traditional distinction between novels and movies seems to me to still hold for the visuality of the internet. Books, texts in language, are better media for exploring the intricacies of the human pscyhe, better access to the interior world than the visual world of technology typically allows for. Perhaps we need both novels and autobiographies by mountain climbers, and photosynth representations of mountain climbing, to get our strongest human approximation of what it must be like to climb in the Himalayas.

Secondly, of course, I’m intrigued by the degree in this video that books and newspapers are a passing mention. Indeed, the brief nod to Dickens’ Bleak House seems to be mostly about the fact that we could put the whole of Bleak House into a simultaneous view, something the presenter agrees is not necessarily a great way to read a book. And the bit on newspapers seems to be about trying to make the experience of reading a traditional newspaper more available for the digital reader. One wants to say why. It’s neat that we can do this, but peculiarity of these moments in the video suggest to me the ways in which these technologies create different forms of experience that are not compatible with books or newspapers as traditionally conceived.

I admit that when I see videos like this, I mostly think that the digital utopians have won the day. That I should fold my tents and go home.

Nevertheless, it still seems to me that the task is to figure out what the precise role of reading traditional texts really is; what particular role do traditional forms of reading and writing have to play in our present moment. What can the reading of texts provide, what skills can it enable, that are difficult (impossible?) to develop in any other way. Of course, we can continue to read without worrying about these things, simply because we like reading books more than other things, but my guess is that this will mean that reading books will become an increasingly arcane hobby–something a little like collecting rare books or writing on typewriters is today. Something that is done and enjoyed, something for which there is even a minimal market, but something that is mostly a curiosity rather than a serious cultural enterprise.

Reading as Mapping: Or, Who are the Well-Read? And Does Anyone Really Care?

My son is a seventh grader who plays up a grade on an eighth grade basketball team. They make the Bad News Bears look talented. I was talking with a friend whose daughter plays on a high school team that’s also been struggling, and I asked him if it was as bad as our eighth graders. “Worse,” he said, “because at least there’s hope.”

How true. With absolutely low expectations and little hope of victory, we can be thrilled when the eighth grade boys manage to keep the game within 30 points. By contrast, our boys’ high school basketball team has lost a dozen games by less than five points, and the girls’ team has played well below expectations, their dismal records depressing by virtue of what might have been.

I feel a little bit the same way about Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.Despite my disparagement of Bayard in yesterday’s post, it’s fair to say that Bayard has 15 pages of very provocative insights. But his tendency to extend them to absurd extremes, to make mind-bending leaps of illogic without sufficient evidence, and his willingness to bury those insights beneath pages of mind-numbingly dull and uninventive reading—to say nothing of his generally flippant tone—leads me to dislike the book all the more despite the important things it might have to say. What might have been, I want to say. What might have been.

For me, Bayard raises the question of what we must mean when we imagine being well read—a class of persons that seems increasingly rarified and relatively unimportant, but which bears a residual level of cultural respect, if not capital, in any case. In America, the Well-Read are something like the British Royal family: ceremonial but without any real power.

Bayard points out that given the tens, the hundreds, of thousands of books that we could possibly imagine being worth reading, there is some literal sense in which all of us will have always read almost nothing at all. He tells the story from Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities wherein the hero walks through a library of 3 and a half million books and realized that, were he to read a book a day, he would have to live ten thousand years to read them all. I am reminded of my favorite professor in college, Joe McClatchey, whom we saw walking across campus one day, a troubled look on his face. Asked what was wrong, he said with some intense sadness that he had just realized how many great books there were that he would never have the chance to read.

I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s dictum for Christians that in comparison to the love and wisdom of God, Christians must begin each day realizing they are starting over as infants. None of us is ever really well-read in this quantitative sense, and so being well-read means something other than or different than “reading everything” or even “reading a lot.” It has nothing, in fact, to do with an amount of reading whatsoever.

The traditional canonical arguments would suggest that it means reading “the best” that has been thought and written, while canonical revisionists would, of course, seek to change or alter what is contained on this list of “bests,” or else challenge and change what is meant by “best.” I am unimpressed by this quest for the right list of “bests”; even were we to agree on what the category entails, it seems to me there are too many very good books out there to read, even in the relatively narrow field defined problematically as “literature”–leave alone philosophy, history, theology, social theory, and etcetera–for us to ever imagine something like a comprehensive literacy.

Bayard takes things in an intriguingly different direction. Being well read is not a matter of what you read at all. Being well read is not a matter of assimilating a particular number of titles. Indeed, for Bayard, being well read has nothing to do with reading particular books at all. Instead, being well read is a function of understanding the relationships between books, an understanding that, once mastered, allows someone to place books with only the most cursory understanding of their contents.

To some degree with is a literacy of location—thus the title of this blog, reading as mapping. To read a single book is a little like examining the details of a single city block. I could read a hundred different titles on a great books list, but if I am only wrapped up in the reading of individual texts, what I will come away with is an intimate knowledge of 100 different city blocks.

For Bayard, by contrast, being well-read is not achieved through the intimate, rigorous, and close reading of discrete texts, but through understanding the map of texts, the way texts and their properties fit together, cohere, differ, contrast. As Bayard puts it:

“As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. The interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it.

“It is, then, hardly important if a cultivated person hasn’t read a given book, for though he has no exact knowledge of its content, he may still know its location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books. This distinction between the content of a book and its location is fundamental, for it is this that allows those unintimidated by culture to speak without trouble on any subject” (10-11)

Before questioning this, I want to affirm how very true it really is, and how important it might be for thinking through what we might mean by cultural literacy. I am often poignantly struck by students who come to me for a list of books they ought to read. I always tell them, read authors they like, and then read what those writers liked, and then read writers who liked those writers. I’m not quite saying the same thing as Bayard, but I am trying to suggest to students that reading a particular list of books is not going to be that helpful.

I think Bayard pushes me a little further here in making me see that I’m also trying to get students in to some kind of system of relationship between texts. Who influences whom, and why does it matter. This is one way of mapping—probably not a very good one. What professors know that students do not are not just individual texts. What professors know is how to read the maps of texts that students don’t even really comprehend exist. The championing of “native knowledges” and reading preferences of students as is common in some pedagogies is of limited use if we don’t see that we are leaving students impotent in understanding how maps of reading work in culture. How can they map their own preferences on to the map of literature—or, how can they challenge whatever maps currently exist.

In a particular sense it seems to me that what Bayard is doing is applying the insights of structural linguistics to the world of books. Imagine each book as a word. Understanding the word by itself is not important, and indeed, if a person only knew one word we justifiably and correctly call such a person an idiot (clinical definition, a person who can do only one thing or speak to only himself—kind of like writing this blog).

However, the structural linguists rightly point out that the meaning of any word is only functional within the entire system of words, and that it is important to understand the shape of that system, that discourse, in some ways more important to understand that than to understand discrete words themselves—a logical impossibility in the thinking of structural linguists since there is no word “in itself”. To apply a Wittgensteinian take on this rather than a structural linguistic take, we rightly note that the meaning of a word is in its use. We can often determine or broadly guess the meaning of a particular word we have never heard before by hearing the word in use, in a particular context. And in any case we come to understand a word not by getting definitions but by learning how the word is put in to use in the systems of language.

Bayard is saying something very similar about what it means to be culturally literate. Cultural literacy is not the grasping of lists of facts or texts—as E.D. Hirsch or Allan Bloom would have had it back in the 80s. Literacy is understanding how the system of books work so that, even when we have not read a particular book, we can determine without too much trouble its general place in the system of books as a whole.

On the whole, I think Bayard underplays the significance of reading particular texts, and the particular kind of sophistication that come through these local knowledges. Bayard’s assertions that it is more important to know the map than to have visited the locations on the map, bears a certain truth. But it’s not clear that a person who reads a map, but who has never seen a mountain or who has never walked through a city block, or who has never viewed the sea, can properly be said to understand a map at all.

Imagine a person who grows up in a closed room and is taught only to read maps, and he becomes thoroughly familiar with maps and the relationships between them. It’s not clear, however, that such a person can really read a map if, when taken out of his room, he cannot recognize a city street. Instead the person is merely reading hieroglyphics without any sense of the relationship of those hieroglyphics to the cultural life in which they are embedded. In other words, a certain level of extended close reading is necessary for the reading of book maps to make any sense at all. Reading of individual books is necessary to the possibility of reading maps in a way we simply take for granted. On the other hand, this having been said, it’s not clear we can really understand our own geography in the fullest ways possible, without understanding the ways that geography is related to other geographies.

In other words, we need to both read the maps and walk the streets. The relationship between the two elements is far more dynamic and interactive than Bayard seems to allow. The knowledge of individual books is only coherent by understanding how to map the book to a particular bookish geography. However, maps only make sense to us at all if we have some knowledge and understanding about at least some, and preferably many, individual books. We can only understand relationship through understanding things being related. Relationship itself, as Kierkegaard well understood, is the most abstract and insubstantial—yet unavoidable and necessary—of philosophical concepts. To get at the ways in which books relate, we have to grasp at least some things of book themselves.

Many more things to say here, but I think I’m going to stop for the night. Two main things on my mind. One, I think the multi-ethnic canon wars have often been fought over lists, and have thus been only marginally effective in challenging the most important thing: the way books are mapped. While we read a few new books, we mostly haven’t changed our understanding of how books relate to each other. We haven’t changed the map; we’ve just added heretofore-unacknowledged trees and rocky outcroppings, while leaving the basic contours of the geographic spaces of literature untouched. Second, and it might be related, but I’m not sure. I think we still do a better job of communicating to undergraduates the importance of the close reading of discrete texts than we do the importance of relationship between texts. Students come away with a strong sense of reading, but not a strong sense of how to map books in their experience.