Death by Blogging

Tiffany over at Yawn at the Apocalypse sent me the following link to a story on the NYT re. the deadly effects of blogging. An excerpt….

Two weeks ago in North Lauderdale, Fla., funeral services were held for Russell Shaw, a prolific blogger on technology subjects who died at 60 of a heart attack. In December, another tech blogger, Marc Orchant, died at 50 of a massive coronary. A third, Om Malik, 41, survived a heart attack in December.

Other bloggers complain of weight loss or gain, sleep disorders, exhaustion and other maladies born of the nonstop strain of producing for a news and information cycle that is as always-on as the Internet.

To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style.

Well, now I know what to blame my bulging wasteline on. You, Dear Reader. You. I am so dedicated to my blogging that I am giving up my health for the cause of….well…of something. Of course, before you came along I blamed it on my job, and before that my kids. And before that my mother. If I ever stop blogging I guess I can blame it on the high fructose corn syrup syndicate.

More seriously, I do think that there’s a peculiar way in which writing is degenerating in to the Grub Street model wherein poorly paid hacks scrabble around trying to make a living by the written word. Or should I say the processed word. Whatever. The more things change the more they stay the same. And other cliches.

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This ‘n That

I’m working on a little longer piece on Emerson, again, but thought I’d just put up a collection of unrelated stuff in the interim.

 

Me On Teleread

I actually don’t remember if I said anything about this, but I should have if I didn’t. Dave Rothman over at teleread.org was kind enough to ask me to blog on his space. David says he wants the perspective of a humanist to complement all the techies. He was kind enough to not say “I want someone who doesn’t know jack about technology.” In any case, my first post over there went up last week. I may have forgotten it because I posted a version of it over here as well. Still, I’m very interested in the conjunction of technology and reading, so teleread is a good place for me to further that thinking.

On Being Healthy

The Canadian Council on Learning tells us that daily reading is better for you than fiber. Oh, wait…I think we just found out that fiber doesn’t do anything for you except forestall diarrhea. (For more on diarrhea, see my completely fascinating post on this topic.) In any case, I’m happy to discover the following.

Reading each day can keep the doctor away, says a report that concludes sifting through books, newspapers and the Internet — on any topic — is the best way to boost “health literacy” skills such as deciphering pill bottles and understanding medical diagnosis.

Daily reading, not education levels, has the “single strongest effect” on the ability to acquire and process health information, the Canadian Council on Learning said Wednesday.

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The learning council reported Canadians aged 16 to 65, who said they read daily, scored up to 38 per cent higher than the average on the health literacy analysis.

Daily readers over 65 years old scored as much as 52 per cent higher than the average for their age.

“Although it may not be a panacea, this report makes a compelling case that reading each day helps keep the doctor away,” said the report.

I think it’s wise to have a tad bit of skepticism about stats like this. I wonder if there are correlations between regular reading and social class, for instance, and if so is the relationship to health a function of reading or a more general issue of access to health care, material resources, and knowledge itself. Still, why look a gift horse in the mouth. At this rate I am going to live a good long time. Actually, I better stop blogging because it’s definitely cutting in to my reading time. (Who am I kidding, I just don’t watch TV anymore.)

Reading More or Reading Better

A blog over at Metafilter raises the typical objections to the notion that we’re in a reading crisis. So what if we’re reading less literature; we’re reading more than ever on the web, right?! On the other hand, they also point out that Americans ability to read at all seems to be declining, pointing to the following study at the National Center for Education Statistics:

On average, U.S. students scored lower than the OECD average (the mean of the 30 OECD countries) on the combined science literacy scale (489 vs. 500).

The average score for U.S. students was:

  • higher than the average score in 22 education systems (5 OECD countries and 17 non-OECD education systems)
  • lower than the average score in 22 education systems (16 OECD countries and 6 non-OECD education systems)
  • not significantly different from the score in 12 education systems (8 OECD countries and 4 non-OECD education systems)

Ummm….One big problem, guys. Science and Math literacy is not the same thing as reading and writing literacy. And so I’m not quite sure what this has to do with whether people are reading literature any more or not. Though I’m sure Dana Gioia over at the NEA would be glad to claim that reading Moby Dick helps people with their algebra. Of course, it could be that reading skills have declined so far that the folks can’t even tell what science and math literacy really is.

Links:

A number of people have been kind enough to comment about the blog or link to my blog in various ways over the past several weeks. A few of them:

Free listens: A blog of reviews about audiobooks. What a great thing. I’ve said that I wish there were more sorting and evaluating of some of the free stuff on the web. Heresy of heresies, I don’t think massing blog stats necessarily tells me much about quality. I mean, videos of Brittany Spears’ pudenda are among the most popular on the web. Does that really tell us anything…about the quality of the video, I mean. Not about the state of America… or the state of Brittany Spears body parts. I haven’t had a chance yet to listen to the audiobooks to see if I agree with the judgments, but I’m glad someone is taking up the flag to do such a thing.

The Reading Experience: Daniel Green has me on his blogroll, and I’ve had The Reading Experience on mine from the beginning. I think Daniel is a little narrower in his literary judgments and tastes than am I, but I admire anyone immensely who has left academe and made it on his own. His blog is always thoughtful and often provocative.

There’s Just No Telling: “Monda” has commented on my blog before, and has a lovely sight devoted to reading and writing. From what I gather she is a teacher of creative writing, who all deserve to be sainted.

Brad’s Reader: Brad lists me as an interesting read. And I didn’t even have to pay him.

There are others that I’ve missed, and I’ve got to stop somewhere in any case. So if you’ve linked to me and I’ve missed you, let me know. I’ll keep you in mind next time I do this.

The Reading Evangelist

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Library of Congress, in conjunction with the Children’s book Council, has appointed Jon Scieszka as its first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Scieszka is the author of a number of very enjoyable children’s books, most notably The Stinky Cheeseman. My son liked it just for the title. We don’t remember a great deal about the content. I also like Scieszka’s emphasis on getting boys to read through his website, guyread.com, the gendered status of reading being another general concern of mine

I’m intrigued by two aspects of this announcement. First, Librarian of Congress James Billington suggested in his remarks about the appointment that “We think it’s very important to have an evangelist for reading.” In the official news release from the LOC, Billington goes on to say

“Jon Scieszka will be an articulate emissary, promoting reading and literature among young people, which are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society.”

Robin Adelson, executive director at Children’s Book Council, added,

“Jon Scieszka’s platform will spotlight the diversity and breadth of children’s literature available today and in so doing present a solution to what can be done to change the state of reading in this country.”

The metaphors are mixed, but all of them are fascinating. If we need a reading evangelist, it must be the case that the country as a whole is among the unwashed and unregenerate, that the gospel of reading comes to us from afar. We have seen and heard, but not understood. Reading, in fact, can save us. Reading is also in need of an emissary to help the non-reader understand it’s excellencies. Billington has something of a misplaced metaphor since I would assume that everyone agrees that young people are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society. I’m not sure, though, that everyone agrees that reading and literature are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society.

Will reading and literature, reading in general and reading literature in particular, heal us of all our woes? My being lurches to say “Amen” and raise my hands in testimony to the gospel of literary reading; this is, after all, the great rationale for the study of literature since at least Matthew Arnold. Whether it’s really true or not is another question. Human cultures have existed quite well without written literature, and fascist societies exhibited widespread literacy. But I do think it’s an intriguing question as to whether broad-based democracies can exist without effective levels of literacy. Something that doesn’t leave us at the mercy of the soundbite. In societies that have had print, reading and writing have been primarily associated with the ruling classes. The development of democracy, the widespread availability of print media, and rising levels of literacy have tended to go hand in hand, even if the connections are accidental rather than essential. (Widespread literacy didn’t prevent fascism, for instance, though I’ve seen some interesting discussions on the primary role of radio—an oral/aural new media of the day—in the rise of Nazism).

Still, Billington and Adelson draw on a rhetoric that seems pretty common to me in recent responses to the “reading crisis.” Reading will make us better. Though what better means is sometimes left to the vagueness of terms like “health” and “creativity.” Interestingly, reading hasn’t always enjoyed this healthy reputation. There’s a long tradition in literature of suspicion of the health effects provoked by reading. The first great Western novel, Don Quixote, is primarily about how excessive reading deranges the mind. Women who read too much are repeatedly driven to adultery and suicide. Men who read too much become soft and effeminate or lazy and irresponsible. Or demonically possessed. Or murderous. Authors’ revenge on their imperious audience, perhaps?

Now, however, reading is right up there with health club memberships and anti-smoking campaigns. If things get much worse, I suspect we will have Senate inquiries with testimony from Madonna and Angelina Jolie on the deleterious effects of non-reading.

The other issue that interests me about this new program is that it is sponsored by Cheerios. I could go on about the fact that, if a public entity like the Library of Congress is truly convinced that reading will save us, shouldn’t we devote public funds to the effort and not leave it in the hands of General Mills. At least it’s not being sponsored by Lucky Charms, I guess.

But that’s another subject, my real interest here is that the named culprits for our so-called reading crisis are manifold: television, the internet, poor parenting, poor teaching, etcetera. One culprit regularly left out is….corporate America. Or, contemporary global capitalism more generally. I don’t think I want to go the orthodox Marxist route and suggest that an ignorant and unreading labor force serves the purposes of international corporations. (Though, hey, it is convenient, isn’t it?)

I’m more interested in the ways in which the shape of our economy has simply changed the time available for reading. The average work week has ballooned to 47 hours per worker, lower than the industrial workers of the nineteenth century but significantly higher than three decades ago when the NEA first started getting worried about the state of reading. In addition, the average American is now spending nearly an hour a day commuting to and from work. Finally, this figure now includes 60 per cent of women, who have always made up the highest percentage of readers. Only 19% of women were in the paid labor force in 1900.

Thus, even though the average work week in 1900 was longer at 50+ hours (lower, however, for educated white collar workers), the average family is now spending a great deal more time in the work place with relatively less time for anything—political and civic participation, reading, much less necessary housework like washing dishes and clothes, fixing the gutters and mowing the lawn.

I’m surprised, frankly, that we don’t have a crisis in lawn care. Though, to be honest, we do have a crisis in lawn care at my house, and I’m not sure it has anything to do with the work week.

The shape of contemporary corporate capitalism is driven by the need for efficiencies and documentable productivity. This is true even of life in higher education—which used to be a fairly sleepy affair designed to give marginally paid professors the time to read and think. No longer. Public universities gauge productivity by how many pages you publish in which prestigious journals. Or how many student units you are able to teach per course hour. No wonder we have so many studies on Madonna and American Idol. Easier to watch TV. Reading Don Quixote, much less the latest novel, just to read doesn’t fit the system.

If someone could prove that reading Don Quixote would improve the corporate bottom line, I’m sure we’d all be given afternoon breaks and required to read. Corporations already sponsor gyms and health club memberships to keep down the costs of health insurance. If reading is so good for us, let’s ask that businesses provide us all with reading rooms and give us new forty-five minute breaks each day to catch up on our reading.

Now there’s an idea whose time has come. I think I’ll preach its gospel.

Final Thought.

Wild Man

I love this picture of Jon Scieszka, but does this look like the picture of a man you’d trust your children with in the stacks of a library?