Reading, anyone?

Critical Mass quotes Randall Jarrell:

One of our universities recently made a survey of the reading habits of the American public; it decided that forty-eight percent of all Americans read, during a year, no book at all. I picture to myself that reader — non-reader, rather; one man out of every two — and I reflect, with shame: ‘Our poems are too hard for him.’ But so, too, are Treasure Island, Peter Rabbit, pornographic novels — any book whatsoever. The authors of the world have been engaged in a sort of conspiracy to drive this American away from books; have in 77 million out of 160 million cases, succeeded. A sort of dream situation often occurs to me in which I call to this imaginary figure, ‘Why don’t you read books?’ — and he always answers, after looking at me steadily for a long time:


Jarrell wrote that in 1972, and posting it now alludes to the National Endowment for the Arts’ “To Read or Not to Read,” which I mentioned previously (skip the first paragraph, as it discusses movies, and make sure you follow the link to “Twilight of the Books” from The New Yorker. I like it so much that I’m linking to it again).

It’s also worth turning to Orwell, who wrote in 1936: “It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low, so low that the words ‘I never read novels,’ which even a dozen years ago were generally uttered with a hint of apology are now always uttered in a tone of conscious pride.” Reading has been going out of fashion for far longer than I’ve been alive. Perhaps this is another example of The Wonderful Past, when literature was respected and the public debated the finer points of meter and rhyme, although if someone could cite a year when that was the case I would much appreciate it.

Even the Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 4th edition, has a snide comment about the vitality of novels, and this staid volume does not joke readily: “No other literary form has attracted more writers (or more people who are not writers), and it continues to do so despite the oft-repeated cry (seldom raised by novelists themselves) that the novel is dead. If proliferation is a sign of incipient death then the demise of the novel must be imminent.”

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