5 August 2004

Do we read enough? In book form, that is?

Michael Dirda, of the Washington Post, has a fabulous screed about the
recent NEA report on the state of reading in America
.  It’s a bit
over the top, but still quite apropos.

[Study author and poet Dana] Gioia thinks it unlikely that any “careful observer of
contemporary American society will be greatly surprised” at this news.
Setting aside the question of whether I’m a careful observer or not, I
was in fact a little surprised: To me, the numbers seemed better than
expected. But then, to my mind, the real literacy crisis has less to do
with the number of people reading than with the narrowing range of
books that Americans actually read.

According to the report, all of “one in six people
reads 12 or more books in a year.” Half the population doesn’t look at
any fiction, poetry or plays, ever. This is, obviously, just pathetic.
Yet how many times have I been in elegant homes where I found lavish
entertainment centers, walls of DVDs, state-of-the-art computer systems
— and not a single book, with the debatable exception of Leonard
Maltin’s guide to movies on video?

I wish I could feel more hopeful about book culture,
believe more strongly that something might be done. But we’ve become a
shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere
spectacle in all the aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious
for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that
just maybe we’ve shortchanged our better selves, that we might have
listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art,
read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because
it was time to tune into “Law and Order” reruns, or jack in to
Warhammer on our home computer, or get back to the latest clone of “The
Da Vinci Code.” Sooner or later, though, probably late at night or when
faced with one of life’s crises, we will surprise in ourselves what
poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.

But come the dawn and our good intentions usually
evaporate. Why persist with Plutarch or George Eliot or Beckett or
William Gaddis when you can drop into a chat room or gaze at digitized
lovelies or go to still another movie? Instead of reading Toqueville or
Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs. In short, we turn
toward the bright and shiny, the meretricious tinsel, the strings of
eye-catching beads for which we exchange our intellectual birthright as
for a mess of pottage. For modern Americans, only the unexamined life
is worth living.

When our non-grad student friends come over, they always express some
sort of awe at the number of books we have.  There’s 10 almost
entirely full bookshelves in the house, and we’ve probably got nearly
2000 books on the premises.

And yet, I kick myself at night that I haven’t read more during the day
and in the evening, distracted as I have been by the Internet and CSI or the Simpsons.

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One Response to “Do we read enough? In book form, that is?”

  1. DJ Says:

    You should try being someone who reads avidly but who did not have the chance to attend college. At least those with whom you normally associate have read and know how to read. The masses cannot effectively interpret anything but the simpliest sentences and often misinterpret the scant items they do read. I find that most folks think it’s very odd for a person to like to read, let alone own books without pictures!