Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It ain't quite news, but...

I would recommend popping over to Caleb Crain's article in the New Yorker, entitled "Twilight of hte Books: What Will Life Be Like if People Stop Reading?" Yes, it's more of this kind of talk about reading, and you may not learn any shockingly new information, just that people read less and it sucks. And it does suck, folks.

But this was intriguing to me:
There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, but some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become “an increasingly arcane hobby.” Such a shift would change the texture of society. If one person decides to watch “The Sopranos” rather than to read Leonardo Sciascia’s novella “To Each His Own,” the culture goes on largely as before—both viewer and reader are entertaining themselves while learning something about the Mafia in the bargain. But if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.

I know, it's a bit ominous and speculative, but I did say "intriguing." I just wonder if there isn't already a reading class. Isn't this what these studies are showing when they give us these high percentage numbers of people who haven't read more than a street sign in the last decade? How much more proof do we require? And we all just know that there is certain topics you do not bring up in certain groups, that you hold your tongue about a new literary novel if you're with, say, my family. If Oprah hasn't mentioned it, they are not likely to know it, even if it's ubiquitous in other circles of people. Those circles? Reading class.

The reading class maybe be a disparate group, though. While working in a very upscale Barnes & Noble, I was always amazed at these business folks coming in, whether after work or while in town and heading home, and buying the latest politico or business hardcovers, full price. (The business ones were the worst - oof, those titles looked painful, and all very very similar.) These were readers, but what they were devouring, what they were consuming at a high price, was not what I think of when I hear "reading class." I suppose it's a matter of literature, as I think of new fiction (which I don't read much, mind you) and literary, New Yorker-esque non-fiction, and maybe leftist screeds, which I sometimes enjoy. But the group I'm thinking of reads this stuff and talks about it and then forms this little elite circle - "you must have read ____ - and I hate it. And I think of my mother reading Nora Roberts and I think, so she's a reader, too! But then I cannot discuss Nora Roberts. And I think of those business folks reading Jack Welch or some other evil business fascist and I think, they're readers! But I don't want to know.

So when they say a "reading class" will develop, it seems to play into this concept of reading as just what I think of as "reading class," of somewhat elitist, highly educated, middle class folks, not reading about hunting or investing or Maeve Binchy. But while I don't want to read about any of these, I do think we have to balance some of this crying about the death of reading with a celebration of the diversity of books out there, and the unique pockets of markets - sorry to use business speak. What's going on in women's near-romance fiction, or real estate titles, or test preparation books? What other ways do we have of engaging a variety of people with the written word?

I'm not ready to give up on Americans, even if they sit in front of the television every night. Crain's article is definitely interesting, but I'd like someone real real smart to write something more promising instead of predicting this reading class - because I worry, might it be self-fulfilling?

Thank you, galleycat, for a brief but smart rebuttal, concluding: "the solution isn't so much about convincing people that reading is fabulous as it is about figuring out how they ever forgot it in the first place." Kudos.

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