Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide.

Eventually one must tire of reading the debates about reading and prefer to just read, or, if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t, watch T.V., or whatever—though if you don’t like reading, I’m rather puzzled that you’re at this site. Regardless, you should read this long, worthwhile, and non-polemical look at the decline of reading from Heather Harris (hat tip Books, Inq.):

One of the great pastimes of the literati, aside from complaining about the Bush administration and attending live tapings of A Prairie Home Companion, is collective hand-wringing about the sad fact that Americans no longer read. Apparently, most of us would sooner watch Rock of Love–Bret and Ambre are so not going to make it–than pick up a novel. Enter Mikita Brottman: Maryland Institute College of Art professor, Oxford scholar, author, and patron saint of the tome-averse masses in her new book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading. Brottman is the latest in a long line of philosophers and writers to question reading’s value, and in this day of reading campaigns and self-important book clubs, the question of whether reading per se is a virtuous activity is timely.

I’ve been collecting examples of quotes and articles concerning the decline of reading, as the debate about whether reading is good or bad for you seems to have been rolling around since the origins of the English novel. Other required reading on reading is Steven Johnson’s Dawn of the Digital Natives, whose perspective is closer to Brottman’s than the unnamed literati of the article.

I fall into more of the rah-rah reading crowd, both for personal and societal reasons. The argument about writing and reading changing our culture resonates with me, as even people who never read have been affected by the innumerable writers and reformers of various kinds whose work extends perpetually backwards in time. In addition, as Foucault argues, power and knowledge are inherently bound, and the most efficient way to transmit knowledge seems to be reading.

Why have we dismantled most forms of racial discrimination or many of the barriers to women in the workforce or other kinds of discrimination based on things other than ability? Why do we let atheists maintain their beliefs openly? It’s largely because some people were willing to challenge the larger culture, chiefly through writing, and enough people were interested in reading to have absorbed those principles or ideas, which now come at us through a thousand outlets. I just read in Alain Badiou’s ‘Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Wo Es War): “When Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life […]” I thought, really? Although I don’t necessarily buy the “exploding Christian nihilism” bit (what nihilism?), count me as a late convert to the Dionysian principle. Without books, it’s doubtful that I would’ve made it there, and it’s in part my own trajectory that leads me to believe, perhaps irrationally, in the transformative value of thinking about the world through reading.

To delve into personal territory, books helped me leave the social carapace that hardened when I was 10 or 11, not create it, as Brottman says happened to her. Books were a recovery from an unhappy move and from video games and helped me articulate more of a worldview and change my behavior, and while I don’t think of books as therapy, they do have some therapeutic aspects to them. To bring the level of seriousness back to an appropriate level, consider what Richard Feynman said in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: “And Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was Von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility!”

Without reading, I might lack this powerful sense of social irresponsibility and instead just have accepted accepted received wisdom instead of revising received wisdom. 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 Lost Girls around like furtive bongs at parties. I call this the “gateway drug” approach to reading, as opposed to the “whole wheat” approach.

Still, on a marginally more serious note, if no one reads, then who will write the challenges to cultural, legal, social, and technical problems? And who will read them? That, implicitly, is what many of hand-wringers worry about. Steven Johnson might argue, perhaps correctly, that those challenges will come from visual media, and that’s possible—but I doubt most visual media can match the depth of depth of text. I’m convinced that reading causes you to think—as Caleb Crain’s Twilight of the Books argues—differently and gives you the tools to argue against bad public policy, bureaucracies, and the like. To me, reading is linked to freedom itself, and I don’t think it’s mere correlation that the initial moves toward democracy coincided with the rise of what evidence we have for written languages, or that repressive governments fear and try to control books and knowledge. Thus, I see reading as important in the personal sphere for individual growth and in the societal sphere for correcting the excesses of organizations with power. And they’re fun—Feynman often criticized such organizations through his social irresponsibility, and has helped transmit that sense to others. Reading doesn’t have to be antisocial, and I usually find being social around people who read is more fun than being around people who don’t, simply because the readers get more and get it faster. Once again, the correlation/causation issue arises, but from my perspective, it doesn’t matter—I’ll take the reader over the non-reader, and many people not in positions of, say, government authority would probably do the same. Without falling prey to Godwin’s Law, I’ll note that many authoritarian regimes try to control knowledge and specific manifestations of knowledge, like books and professors. As a result, I see reading as both a public and private good, although one that, paradoxically, might be best inculcated in young people by trying to show it as dangerous, rather than good for you like Wheaties.

This argument might not matter, since surveys keep appearing that claim people read less and less, but like any believer, I’m still convinced of the faith’s importance. I’m not as much a proselytizer as someone who thinks others should come to it on their volition—I’m less of a Christian missionary and more of a Buddhist monk. Or maybe I’ve just got an economic interest in reading, since I spend an enormous amount of time writing. I think it’s deeper than that, although I won’t be so ridiculously grandiose as to say things like, “The future depends on it!” like a character from a bad superhero movie, I will say that reading still matters as a component of free thought and free life, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of sociability. It can be good for you but shouldn’t necessarily be pitched that way. The culture, however, will move in whatever way it does, and I suspect those in the debate will be increasingly on the margins of the culture as a whole.

EDIT: Added last paragraph on 6/11/08.

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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