Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Disaster? No. Difficulty? Maybe.

About a week ago Larry McMurtry gave an interview to the Houston Chronicle ("H-town" as Brian would say) in advance of delivering the 2009 Friends of Fondren Library Distinguished Guest Lecture about the the culture of reading in the US. He is, as you would expect, pessimistic about the future life of books and reading but he continues to slog through both as a novelist (I've only read Lonesome Dove) and bookstore owner, Booked Up (never been). However, toward the beginning of the interview he provides an answer that seems troubling to me. After being asked about what his talk will be about, he responds:

A: The end of the culture of the book. I’m pessimistic. Mainly it’s the flow of people into my bookshop in Archer City. They’re almost always people over 40. I don’t see kids, and I don’t see kids reading. I think little kids love to have stories read to them, but when they get to 10 or 11 or 12, they run into this tsunami of technology: iPod, iPhone, Blackberries. They don’t resist it, and it’s normal that they wouldn’t; it’s their culture. I’m not so sure they ever come back to reading. Some will, but most won’t.
Now I don't want to get into a big fight with any of our 3 readers but I am sick of the technology is ruining reading argument. It is a canard. It is similar to the number of times "experts" have declared the death of rock 'n' roll-during disco, the rise of rap, new wave, techno dance, etc. (NB: Rock 'n' roll will never die!!!) In fact, I would argue that if simply reading were the goal I could make the case that with the advent of the interweb more people read more words everyday as that is what the world wide web is more or less about...excepting porn and You Tube. So, by my estimation people are reading more than ever before but that isn't the point, is it? It's the decline of book purchasing, borrowing, reading, and discussing that worries Larry, Brian, me, you, Oprah, etc... But, as I think about it more, I wonder why it bothers me? Larry McMurtry goes on to say that:

Q: Does that portend disaster for our culture?
A: It portends difficulty. I don’t know about disaster.

Difficulty? Hmmm. I am not sure. There are cultures in the world that don't have the written word. Is their existence from individual to individual made any less difficult than, say, some pimply-faced teenager who can't or doesn't read Kafka to understand that feeling alienated is as old as time? I think not. I don't have any evidence to support my argument, just a sense that reading isn't ever going to be popular or important to American culture. It just isn't. I am not sure that is a bad thing, either. If you read, great...if you don't, fine too. Some of the smartest people I know don't read even one book a year. Also, how do we reconcile the privileging of reading books over, say, being able to grow a field of tomato plants to feed yourself and your family? Isn't the loss of the latter far more devastating for a culture than not being interested in reading the newest John Grisham novel? Just playing devil's advocate here (a real office in the Vatican by the way!) to look at an issue which continually gets brought up as proof of the atrophy of our culture. How long can we continue to think that we are turning into a poorer and poorer society because we don't read more? Maybe, just maybe, more of us need to know how to grow tomatoes or build a stone fence instead.

Of course, I could be completely wrong...I often am.

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