Yet Once More ...
|Here's yet another lament for the "death of reading," this one opportunistically pegged to the release of the final Harry Potter book. O, someone named Ron Charles, where to start? This philippic is more arrogant and self-satisfied than usual (not only am I a sophisticated smartypants but so is my ten-year-old daughter!), but it has all the same problems.|
As usual, it's never made clear why we should care that people are supposedly reading less fiction. I mean, I love to read fiction and doing so certainly plays an important role in my life, but then, I love to watch baseball too. You may not. And indeed, baseball viewership has declined with the rise of other sports. I don't see that as a serious moral failing on your part. Or the sign of a society in decline.
Why are we supposed to be shocked that entertainment habits might change over time? I haven't read any jeremiads recently about how little epic poetry our scops are currently singing, or about how much we've lost with the appalling decline in magic-lantern show viewing. People don't exactly go to the theater in droves to watch plays by Marlowe, Kyd, and Shakespeare anymore either.
At the same time, is it really even clear that people are reading less than they "used to" (whenever that was). What kind of data do we have on the amount of reading people did in 1875 or 1925? Given that the US now has (according to Wikipedia [forgive me, Ron Charles!]) a 99.9% literacy rate, should we really believe that people are reading "less" (however one might quantify reading) than they did 50 or 100 years ago?
Why is "reading" so often equated in these laments with fiction reading? Charles tsks at those who prefer non-fiction to poesy, with a mocking prosopopoeia:
"I don't read fiction," they say, suddenly serious. "I have so little time nowadays that when I read, I like to learn something." But before I can suggest what one might learn from reading a good novel...Now, sure, one might indeed learn many things from reading a good novel--although do we really read novels in order to learn anything? But Charles's lack of historical perspective is astonishing: after all, it wasn't too long ago that reading fiction was imagined, by precisely the same sort of elite opinion that Charles represents, to be a sure sign of immorality and lack of seriousness and learning, rather than, as Charles imagines, a sign of... well, whatever Good Things he believes it's a sign of. They're not really made clear.
But one of those Good Things seems to be
the unique pleasures of reading a novel: that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private, the sense that you and an author are conspiring for a few hours to experience a place by yourselves ...Again, this is such a historically contingent and particular mode of reading that Charles's claims for its value may happen to be perfectly correct--I enjoy that pleasure myself--but it's hard to see how they are unique or even logically necessary. In earlier periods, of course, much fiction reading was done aloud and in a group, and that intimate solitude associated with novel-reading was not necessarily considered a Good Thing.
Why do we get this kind of hand-wringing every so often? There are so many flaws in the reasoning of these diatribes that I can't help but think they're a screen for some other, more deeply rooted and less expressible, concern.