April 18, 2005


Why literature matters: Good books help make a civil society (Dana Gioia, April 10, 2005, Boston Globe)

Unlike the passive activities of watching television and DVDs or surfing the Web, reading is actually a highly active enterprise. Reading requires sustained and focused attention as well as active use of memory and imagination. Literary reading also enhances and enlarges our humility by helping us imagine and understand lives quite different from our own.

Indeed, we sometimes underestimate how large a role literature has played in the evolution of our national identity, especially in that literature often has served to introduce young people to events from the past and principles of civil society and governance. Just as more ancient Greeks learned about moral and political conduct from the epics of Homer than from the dialogues of Plato, so the most important work in the abolitionist movement was the novel ''Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Likewise our notions of American populism come more from Walt Whitman's poetic vision than from any political tracts. Today when people recall the Depression, the images that most come to mind are of the travails of John Steinbeck's Joad family from ''The Grapes of Wrath." Without a literary inheritance, the historical past is impoverished. [...]

The evidence of literature's importance to civic, personal, and economic health is too strong to ignore. The decline of literary reading foreshadows serious long-term social and economic problems, and it is time to bring literature and the other arts into discussions of public policy. Libraries, schools, and public agencies do noble work, but addressing the reading issue will require the leadership of politicians and the business community as well.

Literature now competes with an enormous array of electronic media. While no single activity is responsible for the decline in reading, the cumulative presence and availability of electronic alternatives increasingly have drawn Americans away from reading.

Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.

I'm as prepared as anyone to find rot at the core of the culture, but it just seems impossible that we read less than our elders did. The recourse to reading was especially noticable after 9-11 and spoke quite well of our curiosity and seriousness.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 18, 2005 10:04 PM

I think the first sentence is a giveaway:

"Unlike the passive activities of watching television and DVDs or surfing the Web, reading is actually a highly active enterprise..."

A lot of my reading is done online. For the writer of this piece, that falls into the passive category of 'surfing the Web' and does not count as reading.

Posted by: Kurt Brouwer at April 19, 2005 2:55 AM


True, reading on the web is reading.

But I think it's also fair to say that browsing highbrow intellectual material is NOT the most popular use of the internet. Something else is.

However, I'm with OJ on this one. Taken as a whole, we're as well or better read than our forbears, and book sales are always rising.

Posted by: Brit at April 19, 2005 5:10 AM

Orrin, that cheery optimism is going to get drummed out of the conservative club if you're not careful. Just yesterday I met someone who was reading and learning all about global warming--from Margaret Atwood.

Yes, we may read more. We also travel more and listen to more music, but the conclusion that we have been enriched thereby would be very dicey. I find visitng bookstores, especially the mega-ones, very depressing because the shelves are groaning with pap. I'm not talking about popular novels, Hollywood exposes or even the thousands of repetitve self-help books--there has always been a good market for those. I'm talking about putative serious stuff that is badly written and absurd. But, of course, who am I in this democratic age to say my "preferences" are any better?

Its like TV. We watch more, but there is a big difference between the family (and the whole neighbourhood) gathering together to watch Playhouse 90 and the rote channel flipping we now do for hours on our private sets. Unless there is some common feel for what is worthwhile and some common dialogue that emerges, it is often just the filling of empty hours that would be better applied to carpentry. A society where everyone is reading different stuff and is unable or unwilling to try and make collective judgments on quality is well-read only in the barest literal sense, and once they are literate there is no more return. There is way too much being published. Not every hour devoted to reading should be celebrated as a cultural advance or even individual edification.

Posted by: Peter B at April 19, 2005 6:07 AM


Well, I agree with all that too. Though a golden age where all the family sat round discussing Aristotle is a myth.

There's an awful lot more of everthing now, including pap. Some things seem to fire the collective consciousness, ride a wave of word-of-mouth, then hype, and everybody reads them (Harry Potter) and much of it is admittedly real drivel (The Da Vinci Code).

But I remember being startled by something Kenneth Clark said when wrapping up his series 'Civilisation'. It was something along the lines of: "the average undergraduate at a provincial English university is far better informed and has far more access to knowledge than all of the people around the dinner table at even the most elite gathering of intellectuals 100 years ago."

And Clark was speaking in the 1960s.

Posted by: Brit at April 19, 2005 7:06 AM


Enriched? That's hardly a realistic standard.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2005 8:01 AM


OK, enlightened, educated, encultured, liberated, informed, ennobled, etc. You choose, but why do you think it is ipso factoa good thing that as many adults as possible read beyond acquiring basic literacy for practical job and lifestyle skills?


If informed means exposed to facts and access means books are more readily available, then that is clearly true. But it is also the source of a very modern problem. That average undergraduate is deluged and lives with less and less guidance on what counts and what doesn't or at least what is authoritative and what isn't. Inevitable he latches onto the trendy, the dramatically simplistic and the conspiratorial. Try and complete the following sentence: "The greater access to facts and books means that modern man is more..." I'm not going to be cornered into arguing that it is a bad thing, but I see little around me to view it as any more related to intellectual development that sex education is to sexual fulfillment. (Again, I'm not criticizing the popular stuff.)

Maybe I'll change my tune if I start running into people who admit they aren't informed enough to have a firm view on something. Haven't met one of those for a long time.

Posted by: Peter B at April 19, 2005 8:50 AM

Trouble is, generally, the less informed you are about something, the easier it is to have a firm view on it.

Which isn't a good thing, but it is a thing.

Posted by: Brit at April 19, 2005 9:56 AM


I don't.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2005 9:56 AM


Actually the less you've studied anything the less vested your opinion. For instance, no one who's spent years in school and thousands ofd dollars is likely to question the very foundations of the topics he studied. No one wants to acknowledge he's wasted his life.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2005 10:53 AM

I'm not sure I agree with that. I suspect most change and challenge comes from within, in all areas of life. Not all, but most.

Posted by: Brit at April 19, 2005 11:45 AM

The change follows from the culture.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2005 12:15 PM


"the less informed you are about something, the easier it is to have a firm view on it."

Got anybody particular in mind?

Posted by: Peter B at April 19, 2005 1:28 PM

Just observing a truth universally acknowledged.

Posted by: Brit at April 19, 2005 5:31 PM


Except it's wrong.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2005 5:45 PM

I don't know what the current figures are, but back before TV was universal, the number of books sold in the UK was about equal to the number of books sold in the US, with about 4 times the population.

About one in 4 of the books sold in the US in the 1980s (I don't know the current figures) were women's rape fantasy novels.

You're going to have a hard time persuading me that quantity is the key factor here.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 19, 2005 8:52 PM

That seems extraordinarily improbable. Whenever Brit authors were on Booknotes they'd talk about how few books you needed to sell in Britain to be a bestseller and how huge it was if Americans decided to read your book too.

Romance novels are perfectly good literature.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2005 9:02 PM

Try reading one of the current ones, Orrin.

I suspect you would have to revise 'perfectly good.'

Anyhow, I disagree. If American women want to have rape fantasies, it's OK with me, but they could do better.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 21, 2005 5:14 PM

I remember watching an episode of 'The Saint' with Roger what's his name, who became a James Bond.

He was on a train, reading a book.

Tell me how many American movies and TV shows ever show the male lead reading a book.

Whether real Britons read when they have time on their hands, I could not say. Perhaps putting a book in his hands was an example of censorship, like putting Ozzie and Harriett in twin beds.

But the assumption in all American popular culture, until recently, is that when people have a bit of time on their hands, they drink.

Lately, they may listen to recorded music or play a computer game.

But they never, ever are presented reading. Maybe the opening scene of 'Guys and Dolls,' when they look at the racing form would be the only exception.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 21, 2005 5:18 PM


Posted by: oj at April 21, 2005 5:28 PM


Go on any commuter train in Britain and I reckon at least 40% will be reading a book. All large train stations have thriving mini-branches of booksellers WH Smiths or Waterstones.

(Most of those books will be pap, mind. 10% of the 40% will probably be reading The Da Vinci Code.)

Most of the other 60% will be reading a newspaper.

(Again, you've got to bear in mind that there's a lot of pap here: the biggest selling paper in the world is The Sun).

Stand in any bus queue and two or three people will be reading a novel.

Oxfam and Amnesty, two of the largest charities, are concentrating on selling second-hand books, because that's where the money is.

I'm not sure how much of it is that Britons like reading, and how much of it is that Britons don't like having to talk to each other.

But, against all the odds and I've no idea why, reading books is still not 'uncool', despite the advent of I-Pods and Notebooks.

Posted by: Brit at April 22, 2005 5:07 AM

Take a bus in Newark or a train to NYC or the El in Chicago. Everyone's reading.

Posted by: oj at April 22, 2005 9:05 AM