Monday, October 07, 2019

'The Personality Type Drawn to Endurance Sports'

“Reading skills have been lost. Only a small minority of Americans now have the ability to read and understand a book—book-reading now is the purview of the personality type drawn to endurance sports—which means most of us are functionally illiterate for democratic purposes.”

I laughed at the part about endurance sports. I am the least sports-mind person you will ever meet. My idea of endurance is staying awake until bedtime. The passage above is by Claire Berlinski, an American journalist living in Paris who writes with remarkable clarity. I possess an enduring streak of naïveté and rely on people like her to help me scrape away illusions like barnacles from the hull of a ship. A part of me continues to think that even video-gamers must occasionally pause to read a middle-period novel by Henry James. They may never read all of the Master’s vast oeuvre but, with a little practice, they too can fall in love with Isabel Archer. Sorry to say, Berlinski is correct.  

A prerequisite of living in the West and enjoying the liberty and prosperity we have inherited is understanding how this gift came about. For Americans, at minimum, that suggests a working knowledge of the Federalist Papers, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and, perhaps, The Education of Henry Adams. Nothing exotic or obscure, and nothing about canon-building. Knowing the origin of your inheritance is commonsensical and an expression of gratitude. More Berlinski:

“Those who can’t read at book length cannot follow a sustained, linear argument. The brain is highly plastic, and we have changed ours in a way that makes it much harder for most of us to think beyond 140 characters—slogans, not arguments—even as we have created in the Internet such a riveting system of rival entertainment that reading a book now requires exceptional personal discipline whereas once it required only the desire to be relieved of boredom.”

The accuracy of Berlinski’s observations can be gauged by listening to conversations even among fairly intelligent people, many of whom stammer intentionally, spurting out pre-approved commonplaces and empty placeholders like “cool” and “awesome.” Who speaks in complete sentences?

I’ve never thought of reading as requiring discipline. Most of us are not enrolled in school and have the freedom to read whatever we wish. It’s a schoolboy’s dream come true. Books have never been so readily available, through libraries (including interlibrary loans), digitalized texts and online bookstores. Not reading guarantees poverty of spirit. Berlinski writes:
“Our shrinking vocabulary is not merely a curious linguistic trend. It signifies that we are losing our capacity for complex thought—and liberal democracy cannot survive this. Liberalism, and the tolerance it demands of citizen, relies upon the public’s sense of, and respect for, the near-infinite complexity of life generally, and human societies, in particular.”

I’ve read one of Berlinski’s books, There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters (2008), and intend to read more.


Damian said...

I liked the "endurance sports" line as well. I mean, really, when you think about it, we're basically the Navy SEALs of this post-literate age.

I'm currently reading her Thatcher book as well, which I picked up at a library sale a couple weeks ago. You might enjoy a recent article of hers from City Journal if you haven't seen it already, where she visited the French Communist Party's Fête de l’Humanité. I love the dry humor.

Baceseras said...

This makes me think again of the poet and essayist Gabriel Zaid. if you haven't discovered him already, there's a treat in store for you. His So Many Books and The Secret of Fame are published by Paul Dry Books. The subtitle of the first is "Reading in an age of abundance," and of the second, "The literary encounter in an age of distraction." The abundance and the distraction are of course the same thing, a blessing we contrive to feel accursed by. Zaid is a wit and an aphorist; he not only advocates for joy, he's a reliable fountain of the stuff. Paul Dry also publishes Zaid's Selected Poems, but I haven't had the chance to get ahold of that one yet.

slr in tx said...


If we were to make a working knowledge of the Federalist Papers (much less Lincoln Douglas and Henry Adams) requisite knowledge for membership in the club, then even Rice University would be a comparative ghost town, tout suite. I am agreed that the world would be a better place were such knowledge more widely disseminated, but it would also be some other world than the one in which we presently find ourselves. (Mind you, my hypothetical should not be construed as an argument against ghost towns).