The chronic fear of reading’s demise set against its benefits

As if you needed more on reading and its benefits (as I discuss here, here, here, and here), see People of the Screen from the New Atlantis. It’s a long article worth reading in full, but these paragraphs stand out:

Whether one agrees with the NEA or with Bloom, no one can deny that our new communications technologies have irrevocably altered the reading culture. In 2005, Northwestern University sociologists Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright identified the emergence of a new “reading class,” one “restricted in size but disproportionate in influence.” Their research , conducted largely in the 1990s, found that the heaviest readers were also the heaviest users of the Internet, a result that many enthusiasts of digital literacy took as evidence that print literacy and screen literacy might be complementary capacities instead of just competitors for precious time.


Just as Griswold and her colleagues suggested the impending rise of a “reading class,” British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield argues that the time we spend in front of the computer and television is creating a two-class society: people of the screen and people of the book. The former, according to new neurological research, are exposing themselves to excessive amounts of dopamine, the natural chemical neurotransmitter produced by the brain. This in turn can lead to the suppression of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which controls functions such as measuring risk and considering the consequences of one’s actions.

Writing in The New Republic in 2005, Johns Hopkins University historian David A. Bell described the often arduous process of reading a scholarly book in digital rather than print format: “I scroll back and forth, search for keywords, and interrupt myself even more often than usual to refill my coffee cup, check my e-mail, check the news, rearrange files in my desk drawer. Eventually I get through the book, and am glad to have done so. But a week later I find it remarkably hard to remember what I have read.”


But the Northwestern sociologists also predicted, “as Internet use moves into less-advantaged segments of the population, the picture may change. For these groups, it may be that leisure time is more limited, the reading habit is less firmly established, and the competition between going online and reading is more intense.” This prediction is now coming to pass: A University of Michigan study published in the Harvard Educational Review in 2008 reported that the Web is now the primary source of reading material for low-income high school students in Detroit. And yet, the study notes, “only reading novels on a regular basis outside of school is shown to have a positive relationship to academic achievement.”

I realize the irony of sharing this on the Internet, where it’s probably being read on the same screens criticized by the study, and perhaps demonstrating the allegedly rising divide between screen readers and book readers.

Compare the section above to my post on Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide, which discusses the innumerable articles on reading’s decline (or maybe not). Alan Jacobs has an excellent post on Frum and Literature in which he observes that reading, especially real books, has probably always been a minority taste and probably always will be. Orwell opens his 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel” by saying “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.” The whole piece is available in the collection Essays.

Finally, consider From Books, New President Found Voice in the New York Times, which I’m sure every book/lit blogger has already linked to by now:

Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.

Mr. Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father” (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others — as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame. He recalls that he read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W. E. B. Du Bois when he was an adolescent in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity and that later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed.

Without his experience in books, Obama probably wouldn’t be where he is, and millions of others must silently share the same condition of achieving what they have thanks largely due to their learning. But they seldom get a voice in the pronouncements about reading’s decline, and those articles seldom acknowledge that, while society might lose a great deal from the allegedly decreasing literacy of its members, those members will lose vastly more on an individual level, and few will even realize what they’ve lost.

(Hat tip Andrew Sullivan.)

January links: Distraction, reading, routine, and more

* I wrote a lot about distraction in this post, and now Cory Doctorow—the same one who wears a red cape and blogs from high-altitude balloons—has written another of these articles. I’m going call them a genre. Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way! in The Atlantic might be part of it.

* The Daily Routines of Interesting People, courtesy of Mental Floss. Most of them are writers of some sort. You can find similar material in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times.

(I don’t remember where I picked up the link, but someone deserves a hat tip.)

* By way of the New York Times’ idea blog, a write up in New Scientist says Victorian literature might function in ways that demonstrate or reinforce positive social behavior:

WHY does storytelling endure across time and cultures? Perhaps the answer lies in our evolutionary roots. A study of the way that people respond to Victorian literature hints that novels act as a social glue, reinforcing the types of behaviour that benefit society.

Literature “could continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way”, says Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.


The team found that the characters fell into groups that mirrored the egalitarian dynamics of hunter-gather society, in which individual dominance is suppressed for the greater good (Evolutionary Psychology, vol 4, p 716). Protagonists, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, scored highly on conscientiousness and nurturing, while antagonists like Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula scored highly on status-seeking and social dominance.

I wonder how the writing of, say, Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Amis or Elmore Leonard would fit that theory. Maybe they’re showing us what not to do.

* Speculative Fiction and criticism is a nice complement to Science Fiction, literature, and the haters, my post on a topic that, I’m now starting to realize, is constantly discussed anew as though it hasn’t been analyzed before.

* The New Yorker has a simpering article about The Village Voice and its history. Although it’s not clear that the Voice did much to change journalism or is important beyond a New Yorker’s myopic vision, there are a few amusing pieces worth quoting:

Wolf considered his editorial policy as philosophy. “The Village Voice was originally conceived as a living, breathing attempt to demolish the notion that one needs to be a professional to accomplish something in a field as purportedly technical as journalism,” he wrote in the introduction to “The Village Voice Reader,” in 1962.


Since devaluing authority is one of the things journalism does, this [habit of internecine warfare among Voice writers] amounted to using the methods of journalism against the pretensions of mainstream journalism.

The same descriptions are frequently applied to bloggers.

* Another reason not to like the Kindle, this one from Philip Greenspun:

My Amazon Kindle is just slightly past its one year anniversary and showing signs of very ill health. Half of the pixels on the screen are stuck following a light knock. I called Amazon and they’re happy to fix it… for $180 plus $7 in shipping (free if you’re a Prime member). The Kindle is more fragile than a laptop computer but less likely to be pampered given that you use it in all the situations where you’d use a book.

I may have to rethink my enthusiasm for the electronic book. Realistically the way that people handle books, the Kindle is not going to last more than one year. That means you’re spending $360 for the initial purchase and $187 every year for hardware repairs. Some of the Kindle editions of books are edging their way up towards $20 […]

See my reasons here.

* Read Jason Fisher’s excellent post on The Imaginative and the Imaginary: Northrop Frye and Tolkien. Pay special attention to the second comment, which is from Glen Robert Gill.

* The Wall Street Journal asks, Blockbuster or Bust? about the incentives behind mega-advances in the publishing and other media industries (merely calling them industries feels dirty, but I guess everyone else does it, which makes it okay). Compare this to my recent post on how the Publishing Industry’s Gloom is Readers’ Gain and Why are so many awful movies so awful

* In the post on the publishing industry linked to above, I also linked to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Staying awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading, which is so good that I will point to it again here. See too Ann Patchett’s The Triumph of the Readers: The markets may be down, but fiction is on the rise in the Wall Street Journal. I agree with this sentence: “I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read, it’s that you read.” Later, she says “Even if you’re stepping into “Valley of the Dolls,” it’s better than nothing. I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug.”)

Compare that to Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide, my post from June 2008:

Let this be a lesson, by the way, to the natterers, including myself, on getting young people to read—instead of pushing reading ceaselessly like whole wheat bread, maybe it’s time to forbid it, and stock copies of Henry Miller and Bret Easton Ellis in the liquor store, thereby necessitating that teenagers get their older siblings or boyfriends or whatever to buy it for them. They might pass copies of [Alan Moore’s] Lost Girls around like furtive bongs at parties. I call this the “gateway drug” approach to reading, as opposed to the “whole wheat” approach.

There are shades of Orwell too. Here’s Patchett:

It’s true, as a source of entertainment reading ranks somewhere between cheap and free, depending on where you get your books. A movie can give you two hours of entertainment, but a book can go on for days or even weeks.

And here’s Orwell in 1942:

Reading is one of the cheapest and least wasteful recreations in existence. An edition of tens of thousands of copies of a book does not use up as much paper or labour as a single day’s issue of one newspaper, and each copy the book may pass through hundreds of hands before it goes back to the pulping mill.

* Reason #1041 why I dislike Tucson: no authors come here because the city’s literary culture is insufficient to draw them. One might think a town with a major university would do better, but, alas, it does not. Steven Berlin Johnson’s book tour for The Invention of Air doesn’t include Tucson—but Johnson will be in Seattle, L.A. and Portland.

* As long as I’m beating up Tucson, notice this post from Nigel Beale regarding the United States’ most literate cities. Minneapolis/St. Paul dominate, Seattle is number two, and Tucson doesn’t make the top 10. But at 32, it does beat Los Angeles (56) and Phoenix (57), although I would take literary L.A. over Tucson for the better bookstores if nothing else.

* PCWorld writes “Inside the World’s Greatest Keyboard” concerning the IBM Model M. I wrote about the Unicomp Customizer here; it’s a version of the Model M that’s still manufactured.

* I’ve linked to Paul Graham’s essay on Philosophy several times, but now someone has written an excellent post disagreeing.

* From Kate’s Book Blog quoting “What is Style?”:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about “pure” style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs.

* Although politics don’t interest me much, this seems so insightful regarding the Middle East as to deserve a link:

IV. As a consequence of the above three trends, major political issues of importance to the people of this region are increasingly inconsequential to most people and powers around the world. The electoral politics of the Metn region in Lebanon, the tribal politics of Gaza, the human rights conditions in Syria and Morocco, and the forty years of Moammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya are issues that no longer occupy any serious time or thought among leaders in the world’s most powerful countries, regardless of whether we accept that or not.

The worst ramifications of the Middle East’s dysfunctions — terrorism, illegal migration, ethnic strife, corruption, police states, and assorted atrocities perpetuated by both state and private actors — are only occasional irritants for the rest of the world, not pressing strategic threats. We have marginalized ourselves as serious players on the global political stage, and now assume the role of nagging annoyances and miscreants.

Indeed: and the pity is that too few seem to realize this.

(Hat tip Jeffrey Goldberg. Incidentally, his piece Why Israel Feels Threatened is worth reading too.)

* The Wall Street Journal discusses Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. See my analysis of the novel here.

Literature and science fiction redux, with taste as a bonus

Science Fiction, literature, and the haters spawned great comments and e-mails, including responses from both the agents I referenced. The one who gave a minimum word count said that the agency he and a partner founded is relatively new, and the advice regarding word count and sequels comes from editors, and until they have more experience, they’re hewing to those guidelines. The other agent said that calling Pearle Transit “too literary” was a poor choice of words and that, although he admired aspects of it, the novel didn’t get him excited. Both replies, in other words, were reasonable and show that the agents care. Other would-be authors might want to take note: rejection is rarely as personal as it might seem. In addition, I’m reminded of this passage from Orwell, who discussed the problems with book reviewing:

[…] the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in [the reviewer] the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless, and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every care the only truthful review he could write would be: “This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.”

Most agents probably feel like that about most books. I just wrote a post expressing how Doctor Faustus roused nothing it me, though I perceive its technical merits. The latter can’t even be said of A Confederacy of Dunces, though it’s widely admired.

In other reactions, several people, including Big Dumb Object and agent Colleen Lindsay, pointed out the Clarke Awards shortlists. Thanks for the tip, and I’ll be reading some of them, although 2008 winner Richard Morgan’s first book, Altered Carbon, embodied some of the negative qualities discussed in my post. Still, very few authors write first books that are their best, and Thirteen is in my queue. I also noticed that Cryptonomicon was on the shortlist for 2000, but it’s not really science fiction.

One other thing I noted was the absence of any correspondents who said, “This is a great book that deserves a spot in the literary pantheon.” Likewise, I’d hoped for citations or links to essays that get deep inside great books. Where is the James Wood (see here too) of science fiction? Perhaps he already exists in Stanislaw Lem—his book Microworlds should arrive soon—but if the genre has as much material as some of the commenters and e-mailers say, it should also have its great critics. To paraphrase Saul Bellow without his racial connotations, I’d love to read them.

One commenter went in the opposite direction and said: “The reason as I see it that almost all science fiction writing falls short of literary merit is that its audience wants it that way.” I’m not convinced: although I pointed out a general trend toward the lack of literary merit in science fiction, it’s a law, and if it is, I’m wary of making correlation into causation. Furthermore, plenty of bad literary fiction exists, just like bad science fiction—but the literary canon pushes the upper bounds of knowledge and language in ways and volumes that science fiction hasn’t, at least to my knowledge so far. That’s in part why I’m writing these posts: it’s a process of searching, and I’m trying not to assume the very opinions I’m asking about it.

A few correspondents wrote that I had no idea what I was talking about and, implicitly, that there is no such thing as literary merit. I suppose both are possible, but they seem highly improbable; stating that there is an element of opinion in every artistic judgment is not the same as believing that every opinion is the same, and I also referred those writers to the “big three” books I’d mentioned about art and writing, which are the best reflections on what makes great literature and what makes great literature great I’ve found. Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel belongs there too. Alas, there is no short checklist that can be easily explained, and so the stack of reading necessary to really enter this conversation is intimidatingly high, and many of the accusers do not appear to have done it; such correspondents might not see the river because they’re in a valley and don’t have the fortitude to climb the mountain. Granted, at the top of the mountain they might look in the opposite direction I do, in which case I’d like to hear their opinions. Along these “everything is relative” lines, I once argued to a professor that Shakespeare and Joyce were way overrated and only read for historical reasons and because other people had read them.

Oh, how I want to take that back.

In Richard Feynman’s hilarious Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he writes about his lessons in art and his visit to the Sistine Chapel, when he recognizes the masterpieces and the lesser works without a guide:

This was a terrific excitement to me, that I also could tell the difference between a beautiful work of art and one that’s not, without being able to define it. As a scientist you always think you know what you’re doing, so you tend to distrust the artist who says, “It’s great,” or “It’s no good,” and then is not able to explain why, as Jerry did with those drawings I took him. But here I was, sunk: I could do it too!*

To be sure, there is an element of opinion in virtually any form of art and criticism, and just as there is in some fields more scientific: in economics, should we value making the resource pie larger through public policy like lower tax rates and flatter tax rates, or should we try and distribute what we have more evenly? Nonetheless, some people simply know much more about the trade-offs involved, and by the same token, some know far more about books and literature than others. The closer you get to hard sciences that are describing rather than interpreting the world—math, physics, chemistry, and the like—the farther you get from pure opinion, but as soon as you reach the application phase, judgment calls arise again: what would be more useful to sell—product derived from X or from Y? What would be a more useful use of physicists during World War II: having them build mechanical calculators and the like, or having them work on the atomic bomb? Someone had to make those decisions, and they’re closer in some respects to artistic choices than to ones regarding proof and experimentation.

In art and literature, there aren’t experiments, but taste exists. Not everyone’s is the same but not everyone’s is equal, either. Mine is well-developed enough to have some opinions of at least some validity, I hope, and I’m looking for others who can say the same, and who know something of science fiction—hence my appreciation of those who pointed out the Clarke Awards and made other suggestions. If I read through the Clarke books and decide I’m wrong, you’ll probably hear about it in a year or two. Although I’m not a scientist, I do have interest in all intellectually honest fields and all intellectually honest practitioners in those fields, and so I turn again to Feynman, who described what he wants to instill in Caltech grads and what they should inculcate in themselves: “It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.” Literary critics should hold themselves to the same standards, and I strive to. How well I succeed I will leave to others to argue.

* Although I quote poetry sometimes, I almost never analyze it here because I’m like the person without a real sense of what great visual art is: not having read widely and deeply enough in poetry to have developed my sense for what makes it bad, mediocre, good, and great poetry, I’m mostly silent, though appreciative.

EDIT: Added Feynman quote to the last paragraph.

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.”

Hugging the Shore

I found John Updike’s Hugging the Shore through Critical Mass’s the Critical Library series of posts, where this collection repeatedly came up. It’s out of print and, I suspect, a book that shaped older critics but is no longer essential and feels too much likes its opinions, like most, have either become accepted or unimportant. Like many revolutions, the ideas in Hugging the Shore seem to have become part of the ossified landscape. Some of the pieces still thrill: the one on Ursula K. Leguin is short but good, while those on Bellow seem to both stretch and not be able to wrap themselves around Bellow. Many of Updike’s opinions I respect, but, at the same time, I flip to the next essay halfway through the one I’m on.

To me, something like Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971 – 2000 feels more vital, for lack of a better term, and maybe Amis’s verbal pyrotechnics show off, but they also convince. Give me it instead of Hugging the Shore, and throw in Orwell’s Essays (more on Orwell here) to give an overview of many of the same topics but better. I like Hugging the Shore, but with criticism even more than novels the essential is everything.

Children of Men

P.D. James’ The Children of Men is a beautiful novel that never quite lives, much like the dying society it describes. Many of its adroit phrases freshen well-tread subjects: “Like all religious evangelists, [Rosie] realizes that there is little satisfaction in the contemplation of heaven for oneself if one cannot simultaneously contemplate the horrors of hell for others” or “‘Generosity is a virtue for individuals, not governments. When governments are generous it is with other people’s money, other people’s safety, other people’s future.'” The last one might be ironic, as it comes from Xan, a government power trying to justify his own cruel policies. Heinlein could’ve given the government quip without the irony, but James is a subtler writer than he was. Still, despite nice passages, Children of Men never came together for me: perhaps I was distracted while reading it, or perhaps I heard too clearly the distant engines of its precedents: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Zamyatin’s We, and a host of others not so memorable. I wanted to like Children of Men more than I did—it’s that good—but couldn’t.

The Bad Girl

The Bad Girl was likable enough to finish but not enough to rouse passion—as Orwell wrote, book reviewing demands “[…] constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.” I think of Orwell when reading pieces like this in the New York Times, calling Mario Vargas Llosa’s “[…] most recent book […] a splendid, suspenseful and irresistible novel […]”.

Maybe The Bad Girl is—or maybe the reviewer is unfamiliar with Milan Kundera, who walks similar ground in The Unbearable Lightness of Being with prose that sounds similar in translation, or maybe she found the self-declared investigation of the manifold forms of the bad girl interesting instead of tedious. Llosa’s protagonist-narrator Ricardo lays out the issue early and often: “Everything in the life of Madam Arnoux remain extremely mysterious, as it had been in the lives of Lily the Chilean girl and Arlette the guerilla fighter.” These are all identities assumed by the bad girl, as she is known to Ricardo once he sees through her masks.

Later, we are reminded again by a psychologist who says that “‘Living in the fiction gave [the bad girl] reasons to feel more secure, less threatened than living in the truth.'” Metafictional commentary runs through the novel, as does Ricardo’s hope for requited love from the bad girl who morphs repeatedly, like an alien creature from a pulp science fiction novel that has made Ricardo into her host. As my absurd comments probably show, the novel does not live up to the lavish review—on the Sunday Book Review cover no less. No wonder I heard Orwell in the background, as The Bad Girl looks literary, sounds literary, and seems deserving of praise even if upon finishing it I only thought, “hmmmmm, that was okay.”

Some of the parts that showed panache didn’t lead to a good whole—an old woman is “[…] interested in the world: she read The Times carefully, beginning with the obituaries […]”, telling us where her mind dwells. The author or translator just misses cliche and sums up a side character’s relationship and much of the novel when Ricardo wishes “[…] not to have learned that my friend was going to be brutally awakened from the dream he was in and returned to harsh reality.” Yes: so will Ricardo, we cannot help but think, especially if we already know The Bad Girl draws from Madame Bovary. But we are also treated to a cheap pop psychology scene more disruptive than the last five minutes of the film Psycho, in which a good man of science tells us what happened to the bad girl, solving a small part of Ricardo’s mystery. But so what? It’s an easily skipped scene—I did go back and read it to be sure—and, while the novel packs meaty ideas about illusion, identity, and relationships in, they, like the characters, never come alive. I’d like those ideas to be part of the characters, rather than another form of the alien creature that alters a character’s personality, leaving them a shell instead of a person.

You’ll like it well enough—but why read something that’s good enough instead of what’s excellent? Unless you’re a book reviewer, as Orwell was, you don’t have to.

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