Wednesday, November 02, 2011

`The Bite of Word on Reality'

“And so the barriers fell: now nearly everyone in the developed world is literate, there is plenty to read, and reading material is dirt cheap. But still people don’t read. Why? The obvious answer—though one that is difficult for us to admit—is that most people don’t like to read.”

The truth is bitter but preferable, I suppose, to sweet lies. The writer, Marshall Poe, posits a “Reading Class,” about which I’m skeptical. He says its members make up “a good portion of the cultural elite in the developed world,” and adds: “We love reading.” That’s wishful thinking. I know a lot of smart people, ostensibly part of the “cultural elite,” who don’t read, and plenty of dullards who do, and political-economy, fashionable or otherwise, has nothing to do with it.

It may seem I’m introducing Poe only to dismiss him, but I endorse his core conclusion – “most people don’t want to read and, therefore, don’t read.” It’s his proposed causes and solutions for this state of affairs that I reject. For instance:

“Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read.”

Nor were we evolved to perform microsurgery or compose the Brandenburg Concertos. Natural selection can’t account for everything, particularly in highly evolved organisms. Darwin wasn’t a vulgar determinist, despite what some of his acolytes claim. People don’t read for many complicated reasons. Chief among them is that reading is work, active engagement, which suggests odious labor. Other diversions, though less rewarding, are seductively passive and easy. Poe writes:

“…we have misidentified the `problem’ facing us: it is not the much-bemoaned reading gap, but rather a seldom-mentioned knowledge gap. Though it is immodest to say, we readers genuinely know more than those who do not read. Thus we are usually able to make better-informed decisions than non-readers can.”

This is self-flattery, nothing more. I see no correspondence between the number of books read and the quantity of wisdom acquired. Knowledge, of course, is not wisdom. Too many readers, or at least people who like to talk about the books they claim to have read, are as comparably foolish as their bookless brethren. Reading a good book presents us with the opportunity to acquire wisdom, scholarship and common sense – in addition to pleasure -- but we’re under no obligation to accept it.

Inevitably, Poe gets around to digital solutions, “using audio and video to share what we know with the public at large.” That we /they dichotomy still rankles, the presumption that “we” are morally obligated to enlighten the blinkered masses:

“We need to face facts: people do not want to read, they want to watch and listen. Our task, then, is to give them something serious to watch and listen to, something that conveys the richness and complexity of our written work in pictures and sounds.”

How is this different from force-feeding Mozart, like musical spinach, to infants? We’re readers, not missionaries. Like most people, I resent being proselytized. If you tell me I have to read something, unless I’m paid to do so I probably won’t. There are other ways to make palatable “the best which has been thought and said,” beginning with reading it ourselves and not frittering away time on J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter books. Dumbing down is never the answer, assuming there is an answer. Action, not words: Read good books and share your enthusiasm. Read bad books and share your distaste. Don’t be shy and don’t be cowed by any class, reading or otherwise. The only lifetime reading plan that ever worked for me was organized serendipity. Here, for example, is something I reread on Monday, on the final page of Hugh Kenner’s A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett (1973), a book I reviewed thirty-eight years ago:

“He believes in the cadence, the comma, the bite of word on reality, whatever else he believes, and his devotion to them, he makes clear, is a sufficient focus for a reader’s attention. In the modern history of literature at least he is a unique moral figure, not a dreamer of rose-gardens but a cultivator of what will grow in the waste land, who can make us see the exhilarating design that thorns and yucca share with whatever will grow anywhere.”


Anonymous said...

"The ratio of literacy to illiteracy is constant but nowadays the illiterates can read and write."
-attr. Alberto Moravia

A. H. Jessup said...

Great quote from Moravia. The reason many do not read is because it is a source of pain to theml although they can read the words, they were denied (or denied themselves) any mastery of the concepts the words are meant to invoke, and therefore feel stupid when they read. And who wants to do something that makes them feel stupid?

George said...

I mean to write something about this. It struck me recently that a lot of what a lot of people consider to be reading is really a print-driven reverie, as if one were to go to a concert and daydream. In many cases this is brought on by a lack of knowledge, but by bad habits of inattention.

tbm said...

You’re on the right track here, but I’d go further and abandon the very premise that reading (or writing) is inherently superior to other activities.

Even setting aside the susceptibility of many self-professed ‘heavy readers’ to certain faults (e.g., a tendency to escapism, a tendency to corrupt native common sense with half-digested ideas and information), I see no reason to privilege reading, even when done well, over the exercise of other human faculties, e.g., the manual dexterity and problem solving required by woodworking or auto repair, the physical daring and endurance required by rock climbing or mountain biking, etc.

These jeremiads (and they do recur eternally, don’t they?) set up a false choice between Reading and Consuming Junk Culture, when in fact many people no more want to do their living through a TV screen than between the covers of a book. I’m not one of them, but I couldn’t possibly abide setting myself up as superior because of it. In fact I’m somewhat abashed about preferring books, and frequently wish self-proclaimed Big Readers would be a little moreso themselves. University professors especially.