Books, culture, and life

Two articles not directly related but nonetheless dealing with similar issues regarding American culture caught my eye. The first, Ron Charles’ Harry Potter and the Death of Reading, recites the now-familiar statistics about the relatively small number of people who read and how their ranks thin among the young. The articles details the usual litany about illiteracy and slips in an important sentence that struck me: “Perhaps submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn’t encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands — and rewards.” If we no longer want contemplation or independence and indulge in marketing hysteria, perhaps novels are truly being marginalized. One reason I still love the form is that it’s among the few means of entertainment in which one isn’t constantly being advertised at. The reader usually isn’t overtly manipulated toward a particular view, whether of products or politics, and in the novel I find the kind of expansiveness that comes from unfettered stories.

That ties into Dana Gioia’s recently piece in the Wall Street Journal, The Impoverishment of American Culture, which argues that the arts—music, dance, painting, and, yes, literature—are worth experiencing and saving, the implication being that most people believe otherwise. I’m struck by how a paragraph of Gioia’s resonates with what Charles wrote: “But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing–it puts a price on everything. The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us.” I ask whether our culture fails us or we fail our culture—the arts he’s describing continue to be created even as their supposed deaths have been lamented for years if not decades. Their wide availability for those who choose to seek them continues, and the Internet only makes finding books, music, or performances easier. While I don’t agree with all of Gioia’s article—another problem is his eagerness to create binary categories of people who experience art and those who don’t—it’s an interesting reading reading, especially because it argues for the value of the independent thought available through the arts.

The main problem with both is that, to the extent they speak to anyone, they are in a conversation being carried on by a self-contained elite, much like the readers of this blog. The T.V.-loving majority probably knows little if anything of the debate and knows less of the pleasures of Cryptonomicon or The Mind-Body Problem. If they are not engaged, do the shrinking number of participants have a duty to reach them, as though we’re saving souls? In writing about Ravelstein I recounted something from How To Be Alone: “[…] Jonathan Franzen made a similar point [when] he admits that he has mellowed since his apocalyptic treatise on why the decline in reading is also a sign of End Times and compares his love for words to the beliefs of religious fanatics.” Maybe we aren’t living in the end times and the times are just changing; poets might have wondered the same thing in the first half of the twentieth century, when poetry began its long slide toward society’s margins.

If people no longer read, perhaps subversive writers will not be as feared. I watched the film The Lives of Others three nights ago, and the insidious East German police extensively monitored writers, as dictators have long feared the power of words. They blacklisted, tortured, and killed writers to achieve ends that, to hear Charles and Gioia, may be accomplished in the West without guns or terror. he culture may be heading in that direction anyway. What the Stasi and an army of censors through the centuries could not accomplish may come through torpor or sloth. Both articles say we need to protect reading and arts, but neither asks a question that may be more important: what happens when no one cares?

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