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Sunday, July 15, 2007

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.

  • At 7/16/2007 01:59:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Personally, I've stayed awake nights worrying about the decline of bear-baiting. I feel certain that there were many valuable lessons conveyed by that, uh. . . sport? spectacle? Whatever. Nature red in tooth and claw and all that.


  • At 7/16/2007 06:54:00 AM, Blogger CJ wrote…

    Hi there! I had to vent a bit when I first read this Charles guy's whiny nonsense, too, but then I was annoyed at myself for not just rolling my eyes and moving on. So I felt compelled to seek validation, by following some of the WaPo blog links to see if anyone else was of the same mind. :)

    Your takedown was by far the best, and enjoyable enough that I hope you don't mind that I've updated my piece and linked it from my own fledgling blog!



  • At 7/16/2007 09:49:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hi CJ, thanks for visiting and commenting! Yeah, the piece was infuriating, and I felt that same annoyance at myself but couldn't help myself either.


  • At 7/16/2007 10:33:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    I'm waiting for the person roughly my age to reminisce about the brain-sharpening power of the Atari 2600, with its rough, blocky figures that forced one to imagine, yes, to IMAGINE WITH OUR BRAINS what a real dragon, or brick wall, or circular pellet-gobbling maze-dweller actually looked like, something that today's realistic video games deny their users. It's just handed to our brains these days. We never have to use them.


  • At 7/16/2007 10:40:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Actually, Truewit, I have been known to offer this theory of video-game evolution: back in the day, when it was impossible to represent anything except blocks and triangles with any real degree of accuracy, game makers were thereby forced to imagine games that didn't require much realistic representation. These games had really bizarre premises that make no "sense" but yet were incredibly enjoyable: think of Q*bert, or Tempest, for example. Once it became possible to recreate real-world objects and people, video games basically became reduced to car chases, karate, and first-person shooters. Not necessarily a decline, since some of those games are pretty absorbing, and of course there were versions of all those genres back in the day too, but I do think there's been some loss of innovation as a result of the technology.

    But maybe I am now Ron Charles.


  • At 7/16/2007 10:47:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    Since I think of myself as a two-legged head bouncing through life as if upon a color changing pyramid, I take affront at your suggestion that Q*bert doesn't make sense.

    It makes A LOT of sense.

    Aren't we all Q*bert?

    On the inside?


  • At 7/16/2007 01:41:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Good one, H.

    I too have been mystified in recent years by claims about the decline of reading (in America, by children, etc.), which are always really about a supposed "decline in reading fiction." I can't believe someone actually went out and wrote an article defending the reading of fiction vs. the reading of non-fiction. As if my descent into reading biographies were a bad thing (putting aside the fact that it does seem to be a sign of impending middle-agedom...sigh).

    Looking at the news release heralding that NEA report, we learn that there has been "an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002." Looking further down in the news report, we see what this means: somewhere around 47% of adults read a novel or play in the past year.

    The NEA, however, is clearly not the most sophisticated of organizations, as its report is almost unintelligible at times since it conflates reading rate (expressed as a percentage of U.S. adults who read fiction) and rates of decline (which is a percentage of that first reading rate percentage).

    Tell me what this sentence means: "The overall rate of decline has accelerated from 5 to 14 percent since 1992." Does that initial 5% mean a drop from 55% to 52%? And the 14% a drop from 53% to 45%? Who knows, since we're never told the overall reading rate, the crucial piece of data on which this entire report is based.

    Opening the 60-page .pdf document, we see that these are the figures upon which they've based their alarmist claims:
    1982: 56.9% of U.S. population was "literary readers"
    1992: 54.0%
    2002: 46.7%

    Total book reading:
    1992: 60.9%
    2002: 56.6%

    NEA Chairman Dana Gioia says, "This report documents a national crisis," adding, "Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity - and all the diverse benefits it fosters - impoverishes both cultural and civic life."

    Notice how easily Gioia slips from reading fiction to reading in general. Does he really believe that reading non-fiction (which I think is often more demanding) represents "a general collapse in advanced literacy"?

    Yes, he does. Here's a statement from the report itself: "Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in a half century." Arrrghhh, the Stupid, It Burns (to quote a favorite blogger).

    Ah, and what is literary? Novels, short stories, poetry, and plays: "According to the survey, the most popular types of literature are novels or short stories, which were read by 45 percent or 93 million adults in the previous year. Poetry was read by 12 percent or 25 million people, while just 4 percent or seven million people reported having read a play."

    Do graphic novels count?

    More generally, are newspaper articles without narratives? And what about online and blog reading? I read lots of "stories" online: are they literary?

    Also, how does that 47% figure compare to other "leisure" activities? It comes in fifth:
    Watch TV (at least one hour per day): 96%
    Go out to movies: 60%
    Exercise: 55%
    Gardening: 47.3%
    Read literature: 46.7%

    So, according to these findings, more people read one book per year than exercise (not clear what exactly the Exercise figure covers in terms of amount of time). That seems like a much larger threat to Western Civilization.

    Gah, reading this report leaves me with two impressions. First, journalists love to repeat inflammatory rhetoric about civilization being at risk and about to collapse, and they will (mindlessly) repeat descriptions of modest statistical changes if those changes are hyped with terms like "bleak," "sheer magnitude," "massive shift," etc. Second, I can't help this report is some sort of sop to the "literary publishing" industry. Why else would an agency be so upset that in the twenty years that saw the development of video games, vcrs, dvds, etc., reading "fiction" declined 10% and that in the past ten years, reading books declined by less than 5%?

    Of course, why "literary publishing" should have this much clout is beyond me. Maybe instead it's a bunch of whiny literary authors blaming readings for not buying their books. In any event, the report is an insult to one's intelligence.


  • At 7/16/2007 01:47:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    One more thing: the advent of DVDs has, I think, radically improved the "reading" of films, both in the academy and outside it. And are films really that much worse than, say, short stories, at least in terms of narrative and the ability to spur "imaginative growth"?

    What's more: 60% of Americans reported going to a movie, and 57% reported reading a book. If true, that's amazing.

    Also, one small correction to my last comment: "somewhere around 47% of adults read a novel or play in the past year" should be "in 2002, somewhere around 47% of adults reported having read a novel or play in the previous year."


  • At 7/16/2007 02:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I think there was some similar hand-wringing over the decline of archery in early modern England. Anyone with too much time on their hands could probably find some examples on EEBO.


  • At 7/17/2007 09:33:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    S: You are a god of maths, as one might say in a particular part of the world. I'm with you until your last two paragraphs. Ease off on the "literary publishing industry" (sounds a bit like "Military-Industrial Complex" in this context). I'm not sure that particular cabal has the kind of clout necessary to warrant "sop." The NEA, however, is likely blowing things out of proportion in a misguided effort to secure funding. Skewed statistical evidence is, of course, our time's most convincing argument for nearly anything, and while you'd like to think the NEA wouldn't play the game, it appears that they do (not too many statisticians over there, I'd imagine). It's a poor attempt to strike fear into the hearts of donors and the government. It's also a limiting notion of the A in their name, but that's another story.


  • At 7/17/2007 10:40:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Yeah, I doubt "literary" publishers have that much clout too. The reason that thought even occurred to me is that the report claimed that this decline meant that there were 20 million fewer readers in 2002 than there would have been had literary reading rates stayed at the same level as in 1982. Who else, besides those looking to make money from writing and publishing literary books, would care about the aggregate number of readers the U.S. would have had were it not for this 10% decline? But you're right, it's probably just meant to be another alarmist statistic: 20 million people!!! That's so many!!! It's like New York x 2!!! Oh, the humanity!!!

    And the crazy thing here isn't even skewed statistical data, but over-the-top rhetoric ("Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline"!!!) in the report that has been mindlessly repeated by journalists. Had they bothered to look, the stenographers would have noticed that almost as many people read books (57%) as go to the movies (60%). I'm still flabbergasted by this figure.

    Also, if journalists had delved into the report, they would have seen that U.S. reading rates are higher than European ones (57% vs. 45%), though lower than in Canada (57% vs. 67%) ("U.S. trounces Europe in Reading Rates, but Canada wins the Biblio-Gold Medal"!!!). England clocks in at 63%.


  • At 7/17/2007 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    My parents are a perfect counter-example, to my mind. Both are highly educated professionals, intellectually curious and engaged citizens. I don't think either has read a "literary" fiction title in years. They read 1) true crime; 2) detective stories; 3) thrillers involving terrorists or spies or both. My father supplements this with some of those biographies of US presidents and popular American histories by McCullough et al that are always on best-seller list.

    The point is: whether one reads "literary fiction" says very little about the kinds of Good Things that these people always imagine (citizenship, intelligence, critical thinking, etc.), all of which are perfectly acquirable through other means. What it does say a lot about is the amount of free time and, more importantly, free mental energy one has on one's hands. I know a ton of academics who never read literary fiction for pleasure. They're too overloaded with work reading to spare the mental energy. So if these professional readers don't read literary fiction in their off-work hours, why should we be surprised that lawyers, doctors, factory workers, police officers, etc., don't either?


  • At 7/17/2007 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Crispinella wrote…

    I'm kind of amazed that "4 percent or seven million people reported having read a play", given that reading a play is in some ways a fairly weird thing to do. And picking up Simplicius' comment about DVDs, I wonder (1) how many people read screenplays and (2) whether Mr Charles would consider them literary reading.


  • At 7/17/2007 07:47:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Regarding the question of whether semi-literary fiction is more (or differently) improving than other kinds of reading: I have a lot of students who are English majors precisely because they love to read, and some of them are even the sort who devour Austen, Dickens, etc., in addition mysteries and chick-lit and Tolkien and so on.

    It's awesome that they read those novels and enjoy them. But are fiction aficionados actually better and more thoughtful readers than their non-fiction-reading classmates? Does their reading prepare them to do a better job of talking even about narrative and character--much less about language and imagery?

    Generally, I'd say no.


  • At 7/18/2007 08:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Hieronimo, your post, and the marginal notes, make it seem that Ron Charles's essay is a screed about the end of civilization. I don't agree at all. It's more of an elegy about the decline of an artform and an audience than a screed about the end of days, and in my opinion, the lack of diversity that it observes within contemporary publishing and reading is real.

    Setting aside the aspersions that you cast on RC and his motivations for writing the essay, I take issue with your suggestion that reading fiction is nothing more than a form of entertainment, tantamount to other mass diversions such as baseball. Is it really so absurd, or so perverse, to suggest that it is possible, and desirable, to discriminate between the pleasures that different human activities provide us?

    Of course those determinations are historically-informed and change over time; the pleasure that reading afforded 16th- and 17th-century bibliophiles may not be exactly the same pleasure that it gives book-lovers now. But your post forecloses any conversation about the merits of different kinds of pleasure, or of the consequences of abandoning one in favor of others. If fiction is mere entertainment, and if one entertainment is as good as any other (de gustibus non disputandum), then how are we to go about deciding how to spend our precious time?

    I know that you're an English professor. In this context, I find it extraordinary, that ether you are reluctant to acknowledge that fiction is able to transform our experience and understanding in ways that other human activities are not, or you have never experienced it that way yourself. You conclude your post by remarking on the "more deeply rooted and less expressible, concern" that lies behind RC's essay. I would ask, in turn, what lies behind your lack of confidence that fiction is different from other human achievements and worth fighting for as such.


  • At 7/18/2007 10:27:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hi Anon, thanks for your comment. I hope I can clarify.

    It's not that I don't think reading novels offers a qualitatively different kind of pleasure than watching baseball or going to the movies--or than watching drama or reading poetry, for that matter. I certainly do. I tried to make that clear in the original post--that's what I mean when I say that "Charles's claims for its value may happen to be perfectly correct."

    I just don't think that the pleasures of reading novels are uniquely important. I mean, they are important to me, but not to plenty of incredibly intelligent and culturally sensitive people I know (e.g., my parents). Similarly, for some of my co-bloggers--I'm thinking of you Truewit and Inkhorn--music is a central part of their lives; but it's just not for me. Among the arts, I prefer reading and watching films to listening to music, which I just don't do that often. Would it "startle" Ron Charles to hear that?

    As an English professor, I do my darnedest, as they say, to teach my students why reading literature can be exciting, fulfilling, and powerfully illuminating about the world we live in; and to teach them why the particular literature that I happen to love studying (which isn't novels) is so great. But if they then decide to major in film or in biology and (like most people) stop reading literature very often after college, I don't think they've sacrificed some unique part of their humanity. And I don't conclude that they aren't "reading"--the truth is, all those people who are counted as "not reading" are almost surely reading plenty every day. So "reading" gets defined ideologically, just as it does in Charles's piece.

    I don't see how Charles's piece can be read as anything other than a "screed about the end of civilization" (with some allowance for hyperbole, please). He complains that we're suffering from "cultural infantilism" because not only are we not reading enough novels, but when we do read novels, we're reading the wrong novels. This isn't a claim, as yours is, that reading provides a substantively different kind of pleasure than other forms of entertainment, and that we should encourage that kind of biodiversity in pleasure--that's a claim I might be able to get behind. (Incidentally, the biodiversity claim he does make is that "good" books are more and more getting squeezed out by "bad" books, of which I'm also not convinced; there are surely more bad books than good out there, however one defines those terms, but is the proportion really changing? There are a lot of "bad" plays in the Age of Shakespeare).

    No, instead, Charles's claim seems to be that if not everyone agrees with Ron Charles's taste, they're suffering from cultural infantilism. With no self-reflection on the creation of that taste and its role in creating social distinctions and hierarchies (a la Bourdieu). And I'd say that that claim is an expression of some ""more deeply rooted and less expressible, concern" about "Why Johnny Can't Read," since we get this kind of report every so often with regularity, even though the data about reading, as Simplicius has detailed, is awfully sketchy. (It's similar to the argument about "Why Johnny Can't Write," which we've discussed here in earlier posts.)


  • At 7/18/2007 11:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    You wrote very measured response to a somewhat inflammatory comment, and I'm grateful for that.

    I think that we will have to disagree about whether it is desirable and valid to call for distinctions to be made between "good" and "bad" books. My distinctions are not RC's, and doubtless yours are not mine, but I don't think that on that basis (the sheer contingency of responses to art and other human activities) that we should conclude that distinctions of value are not worth making, or trying to make, or making for while until we make better ones-- particularly at a time when the independence and variety of our desires as readers and critics of books is under siege from profit-making corporations (here I do agree with RC, in a limited sense, that a diminishment is occurring in the so-called "marketplace of ideas").

    From my point of view, which like yours is pluralistic about human pleasure, the education of judgment (as opposed to what Bourdieu would regard as taste) is one of the main benefits of reading and writing and talking about books. And so, though I don't agree with RC in every respect, I am also not offended that he should express a desire for there to be "better" novels than Harry Potter. I read his essay in The Post as a welcome invitation (provocation) to resume the salutary activity of discussing why we like what we like and whether we should not try to like other things more. And here we are.

    Your remark that you don't think that your students have "sacrificed some unique part of their humanity" if they "stop reading literature very often after college" is another point of disagreement between us. As someone who understands what it is to be moved and edified and changed by literature (note that I am now following the lead of your response to my comment and using "literature" rather than the less restrictive "fiction"), do you really not regard this as a loss to them? What do you other readers think?


  • At 7/18/2007 07:50:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    "particularly at a time when the independence and variety of our desires as readers and critics of books is under siege from profit-making corporations"

    This has always been the case, hasn't it? When has publishing ever not been pursued for the sake of profits? And "bad books" (i.e., books someone doesn't like and/or doesn't think are very good) have always been around. Anyone can make all the distinctions in value he or she wants, but that hardly means those distinctions are absolute or need to be imposed on others (that is, beyond ironically mocking others for their bad taste--that's always fun for the wits of the world).

    "do you really not regard this [not reading literature] as a loss to them [students]?"

    Perhaps it's a loss, but no more than not pursuing other "artistic" or "cultural" activities. Lord knows people's lives would be richer if they not only read literature, but they experienced music deeply (and knowledgeably), studied painting, actually learned how to draw and paint, studied sculpture, created sculptures, attended operas, studied voice, played classical music, played jazz, wrote poetry, composed rock 'n roll songs, studied architecture, translated Catullus, read Homer in the original Greek, read philosophy, read history, wrote screen plays, shot their own short films, designed video games, read graphic novels, wrote graphic novels, became video artists, studied fashion, wrote engaging literary criticism, read books about early modern drama, loved Beaumont and Fletcher, participated in Scrabble tournaments, competed in puzzle competitions, played chess, attended cooking school, followed baseball fanatically, pledged eternal loyalty to a football team (that's either British or American football), played Quidditch, practiced archery, and so on and so on.

    I am also not offended that he should express a desire for there to be "better" novels than Harry Potter.

    Of course there are "better" novels than Harry Potter, just as there are "better" plays than Hamlet. But reading is typically not a zero-sum game (save if you are stranded on a desert island), and so I could give a flip what RC thinks about the books I read. Nor I would ever think to insult others for the books they like, or for any other form of popular entertainment they enjoy (beyond those that cause harm to others or to animals--I can't support bear baiting--sorry Flavia). I do, however, reserve the right to mock secretly those who dislike the Potter novels (gits, all of 'em).


  • At 7/18/2007 08:04:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Here's another headline the NEA could have run with: "Reading of Non-Fiction Surges 43%."

    Because people who read non-fiction books and did not read fiction books surged from 6.9% to 9.9%, a whopping increase of 43%! Due to this massive shift, America is rapidly becoming more serious, people. At this rate, everyone will be reading and only reading non-fiction books in fifty years. Hear that, academic presses? Non-fiction books will soon triumph over those decadent novels, sinful short stories, precious poems, and lewd plays.


  • At 7/19/2007 12:24:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    #2 on the Amazon best-seller list in "Books" is Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, literary fiction that "covers three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war and Taliban tyranny through the lives of two women." The Times called it "so stirring" while noting its "myriad flaws."

    #4 is Sara Gruen's award-winning Water for Elephants, which the Times describes as a "darling of the independent bookseller circuit" and as "arresting portrayal of the subculture of the Depression-era circus."

    #19 is Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction.

    #21 is Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise--not exactly light summer beach reading, this is the first 2 parts of a planned five-novel cycle about the Nazi occupation of a small village; the Washington Post calls it "an incomparable book, in some ways sui generis" and an "extraordinary work of fiction."

    #23 is Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner.

    That's five works of literary fiction in the top 25 sellers on what I imagine is the most demotic and democratic best-seller list we have. (Note that 6 of the top 25 are some version of Harry Potter, audio book or boxed set, etc., so the top-25 is in essence more like the top 20.) That just doesn't strike me as grounds for declaring that literary fiction is "under siege"--at least, no more than any high art form is under siege, and certainly far less than some high art forms, such as classical music or opera, neither of which, you will not be surprised to learn, finds a place in the Amazon top-25 in Music.


  • At 7/19/2007 07:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I am not saying, not in any way, that everyone else should like the books that I like or indeed anything else that I like. Both of you seem to believe that merely raising the question of value (should we read rather than X; if we do read, what should we read)--or more generally, the question of how to live--is tantamount to imposing one's taste on others. That's a leap that I can't make. The unexamined life may be worth living but not as much as the examined life (in my opinion).

    Since we can't read all books or live every life that might be open to us--and since we must choose, all the time, what and how to be in the world--how are we to decide what to choose for ourselves? Are we to look for guidance to the Amazon.com best-seller list? I would much rather that we enter into spirited conversation with people who have strong opinions (like and unlike our own), people like RC, and see what happens.

    I wrote a comment on Hieronimo's original post because it seemed to me that in taking umbrage about RC's essay, he was attempting to discredit him, as well as what he wrote, without considering what RC's argument looks like from his vantage. Reasonable people might believe that there is something unwelcome about the Harry Potter industry (and the Star Wars industry, and...). They might even believe, even at a time when literacy is on the rise and there are more books than ever before, that Jonson was right when he wrote that "talking and Eloquence are not the same, and to speake and to speake well, are two things." At least they might believe that it was worth discussing what the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary might amount to.

    But if you believe that there's no point in having that conversation, if you believe that such conversations arise from faulty judgment or icky politics, and if you believe that one way of passing the time is as good as any other, then there is no where for us to go. If you are interested in having the conversation, you should be talking to RC as well as to me and your other readers. You've had fun heaping scorn on him on your blog, but have you invited him to read these posts and respond to what you have to say?


  • At 7/19/2007 10:02:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Since we can't read all books or live every life that might be open to us--and since we must choose, all the time, what and how to be in the world--how are we to decide what to choose for ourselves?

    My rule of thumb comes from Forster: "Follow your bliss."

    I love hearing from others about books and authors that I might enjoy, for whatever reason. But I'm generally not interested in discussions of what people "should read," either what certain individuals think I should read or what other people (in the aggregate) "should read." Even intellectually, I find it more interesting to see what other people like to read and are reading than to consider what else they maybe should be reading.

    But for an extended consideration of that issue, see this discussion at Unfogged (be sure to read the comments too).


  • At 7/19/2007 10:13:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    have you invited him to read these posts and respond to what you have to say?

    Well, there's no real inviting in the blogosphere, but anyone is welcome to read and respond to our posts. That's why we've got a comment section. If Ron Charles wants to do so, I'm sure he knows where to find us--we're linked from his article at the Washington Post, after all. And if he wants to clarify that he means what you mean and not what he said, fine with me. But still, I thought his article was pretty arrogant and self-satisfied. Look, I know and respect plenty of people who think the Potter books are basically trash; my post wasn't really about whether there are good books and bad books.

    What it was about is the oddly persistent, but logically unexamined and unexplained, conflation of fiction-reading with morality or cultivation or civilization or integrity or... or something. This has become an entire genre of journalism. And the link between fiction-reading and these other Good Things is apparently supposed to be self-evident. But it isn't. And when I see something that is repeatedly taken as self-evident but, in fact, is not self-evident, it suggests to me the presence of ideology.


  • At 7/19/2007 10:18:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    If people are interested, here's a list of all the authors that have appeared on the NY Times Fiction Best-Seller list since 1942.


  • At 7/19/2007 10:57:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Of all the #1 books on the NYT, that is... this is endless amusement, S.

    Wow, due to alphabetization, there's a stretch in there of 25 books in a row from Tom Clancy and Mary Higgins Clark. Then, after a couple other books, come 13 books by Patricia Cornwell. Plus 5 by Michael Crichton. And they've alphabetized Le Carre under L, but one might as easily have put him under C too (7 books).

    Maybe people whose last name begins with C shouldn't be allowed to write books? We'd lose Cheever, but that's a small price to pay. Maybe get rid of G, too, while we're at it: 69% of them are by Sue Grafton and John Grisham. < /snark>

    The only author with a last name starting with I to reach #1 is John Irving, who has cornered the market in I-authors.

    Stephen King must be filthy rich--28 #1 books. Wow. Danielle Steele has 27: is she a real person or one of those corporate pseudonyms? I can't remember.

    Someone named James Patterson has 21 books on the list. He wins the award for "most popular author Hieronimo has never heard of." I'm sure he's never heard of me either, though, so we're even.

    My guess for most unread #1 book: Rushdie, Satanic Verses.

    Most inspiring initial letter: N. One book only: Lolita.


  • At 7/19/2007 11:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Ideology is, as ever, in the eye of the beholder. Maybe if you asked RC what he meant by Good Things, instead of just reviling him on your blog, and ridiculing the very idea of the good, you would be surprised by his answers and his rationale (also, maybe not).

    Or to put it another way: From my perspective, your own frequent appeals to the Market as a source of self-evident truth about the habits, desires, and judgments of readers are at least as unexplained (and unexamined?) as RC's belief that there is a better kind of writing that we should all be reading instead of Harry Potter &c.


  • At 7/19/2007 12:15:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Well, Agathon, I think we're not going to agree on the Big Issues here. But just to clarify: it was Charles who appealed to the Amazon best-seller list as evidence for what people were reading and as a value judgment: "when their parents do pick up a novel, it's often one that leaves a lot to be desired .... among the top 20 best-selling books on Amazon.com this week, only six are novels -- and that includes the upcoming seventh volume of He Who Must Not Be Outsold, James Patterson's 'The Quickie,' the 13th volume of Janet Evanovich's comic mystery series and a vampire love saga."

    My own appeal to Amazon and to the NYT best-seller lists was in response to his, and I did so: 1) as evidence for what people are buying (for which I think it's decent, but of course not perfect, evidence); and 2) to query some of Charles's claims (with which you concur) about literary fiction being seriously besieged by an increase in trashy fiction, or about their being a loss of diversity in publishing.

    Now, the best-seller list is certainly not perfect evidence of what people are buying--and much, much less of what people are reading (this was the point of my comment about Rushdie). But, for what best-seller lists are worth (and they are worth something as evidence, I think), I just don't see evidence of that decline. That was my only point with regard to best-seller lists, I think. Of course the best-seller list, or "the market" (however defined), can't provide any basis for assessing value, but it can provide some evidence (properly examined, of course) for the "habits [and] desires" of readers--though certainly not for their "judgments" once (if) they read the books they bought.


  • At 7/19/2007 04:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Lest we forget, Sidney, who looms over this whole debate wringing his delicate hands, might remind us that the imagination is the greatest weapon we have against the ascendancy of the Church of the Bottom Line. When a nation turns its back on fiction, effectively declaring war on the Emperor of Ice-Cream, it's indicative of something more than the vagaries of taste.


  • At 7/19/2007 05:55:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Yummm, ice cream. I will never turn my back on ice cream.

    But for every delicate Sidney, there's a robust Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

    (I do realize that this humble blog calls into question the accuracy of Johnson's pronouncement.)


  • At 7/19/2007 06:16:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Also, I have to say I love the image of Sidney "wringing his delicate hands."


  • At 7/19/2007 06:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    [adam, here, for some reason unable to log on ...]

    this is the very monster of all comments pages. congratulations. some stray thoughts ...

    the article by ray charles, or whatever he's called, is indeed irksome, and displays, inter alia, a deeply odd attitude to childhood (initially elevating a ten year old, then lamenting 'a bad case of cultural infantilism'). however, unravelling prince charles's flawed articulation of a narrative of cultural decline doesn't mean there is no cultural decline. jeremiads about falling standards are tedious and predictable but they sometimes might be right. i realise i have morphed into a tory peer by writing that sentence but i think it's true.

    craig charles's post was about (a) a supposed decline in novel reading, and (b) the importance of the novel as a form. i simply don't know whether we read fewer novels today, but i certainly do think there is something particular about reading novels that sets them apart from many other forms of writing, and certainly from other forms of 'leisure activity'. (hateful phrase.) it has something to do with the capacity of novels to hold, simultaneously, and without recourse to resolution, multiple perspectives (ideas, characters, narratives, kinds of rhetoric, etc): to present and sustain and enact plurality. james wood had a nice expression for it: something like the kindness of novels, their friendliness, or some such, by which i think he meant the capacity of novels to take on strangers and strange things, to welcome them in, to let them live on. it is of course true that other artistic forms can do this, but i don't think many can do it in the way novels can. and i guess you could say this is a historically contingent expectation of novels: but i'm not sure. i think it's always been there, since ca. 1720: in fact, one of the defining generic conditions of the novel must surely be its tendency to gobble up and then depoly other kinds of writing. and i think the capacity of novels to present this patience with competing, jarring ideas is massively important, massively massively important, and for this reason i think i would make the case that reading novels is an activity more important than reading the back of cereal packets or the announcements pages of the times or advertising slogans or or or ... there. i've said it. set me on fire and send me back to fifteenth-century norfolk.

    i've never read one potter word, but there is a piece from the guardian arguing that the whole thing is a heap of tosh. here: http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/07/harry_potters_big_con_is_the_p.html

    finally. victoria beckham. fascinating, no?


  • At 7/19/2007 07:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I have to say, I'm more sympathetic to parts of Ron Charles' piece than I might otherwise be, because I've had his experience as far as HP goes. (It's so unfair. After years of being derided because I was still reading children's books "long past" the age at which I should reasonably do so, I'm now looked at askance because I'm no longer reading the same children's book as everyone else! [Oddly enough, I stopped after book 4, too.]) People who love Harry Potter are incredibly shocked, in my experience, when you confess that you don't--which is true of all people who really love their favorite books, but there are *so many* Potter fans to come in contact with!

    (I do have to wonder, though--what would he have thought of Dickens, back in the serialization days? As you say, private reading of the sort Charles praises is a relatively recent phenomenon.)

    I think there's an air of feeling under attack by both Potter fans and by non-readers in general (the passage about the responses people give to his job as book critic) that may go a long way toward explaining his tone. If you're constantly coming into contact with people who express surprise that you can make a living doing something as "effete" as reading, it may be very easy to feel as though this is a trait of the public at large. And the whole second page is about the decline of the book review as a force for good. Charles may present this as an argument about Society, but I think at heart, it's a very personal piece about his job.


  • At 7/20/2007 12:05:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hi Anonymous Adam,

    Yes, I agree with your formal analysis of the novel, and I think that's an excellent defense of the importance of novel reading (although drama too holds multiple perspectives without necessarily resolving them--and perhaps more so given its lack of a narrator?). I don't know whether that expectation for novels is of recent vintage, but I do think the novel form itself is historically contingent; the novel as a form arises when it does for historical reasons, and the formal elements of the novel that you cite surely have something to do with this (doesn't Moretti argue this?). But for that reason, I imagine it will someday fade away as a vital form for historical reasons as well. At least, all the evidence of literary forms seems to suggest as much: we don't write and read epic poems much anymore, or verse drama, or epigrams, etc.

    Something will surely have been lost if the novel goes the way of those forms, but then something may have been gained too (see debate, Brecht-Lukacs). It seems like a kind of error of perspective to assume that there will be only loss. From our perspective there will be loss, but then again, critics in 1720 could not foresee the kind of gains that you point out the novel would bring, even as it gobbled up and obliterated other literary forms in the process of dominating the field. Tim Harris makes a rather brilliant point along the same lines about the "vanishing" of English "traditional culture" (May games and so forth) that historians have claimed to identify: he points out that, since culture is not static or reified but dynamic, "certain facets of this culture [will always be] seen to disappear .... Adopting this conceptual approach it is inevitable that this traditional culture is always going to appear to be shrinking" (Popular Culture in England, 23).

    Perhaps this is why, as you say, such jeremiads (or nostalgic celebrations) can be endlessly recurring and repetitive while also being correct in another sense. It's inevitable that they will be correct, as Harris points out, but for that reason it's also banal that they're correct.

    (That said, I just don't buy the NEA's claim for the death of reading: I'd really need to be convinced that fewer novels are being read today than in, say, 1850, or even 1950.)


  • At 7/20/2007 12:17:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    PS I don't believe you have morphed into a Tory peer, although if you are, can I come stay at your country estate?


  • At 7/20/2007 05:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    of course. the gates are always open. the long gallery prepared. the hounds at your service.


  • At 7/20/2007 08:50:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    One last thing: the key difference between RC and tempestsarekind is that, while they both don't love Harry Potter, he takes his dislike as an opportunity to insult the intelligence of those who do enjoy the HP novels, whereas she simply talks about the annoyance of having to deal with so many people who like them and assume that she does too. Her comment could actually yield an amusing personal essay, one that might meditate on the vagaries of literary taste (though this wouldn't be required), but that would definitely be a whole lot more enjoyable and a whole lot smarter than his Washington Post piece.

    And I agree with tempest about RC's essay being "a very personal piece"--it does betrays a certain insecurity and solipsism. I mean, really, people should be surprised when they meet someone who reviews books for a living (even I would assume that person needed other side jobs to pay the bills). Heck, I find my job of teaching and writing about old books to be a bit ridiculous. But, then again, I don't see myself as someone who is fighting back against the imminent decline of civilization and who must defend Great Books against wizards, witches, pirates, and the vulgar tastes of the multitude.


  • At 7/20/2007 08:54:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Aaarrhhhhhhh! Pirates! Aaaarrrrrhhhhh!


  • At 12/04/2007 02:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I found this post because it was mentioned recently in the same web log. I hope you don't mind if I add the following points:

    I am not American and I belong to a region where meritocracy is valued and the classics not just part of some debate over a canon. Nor do I find reading "old books" ridiculous.

    Charles gives some very good points. For example, the works that he recommends at the end of the article are for me much better than *Harry Potter*. This negates the claim that he gives "whiny nonsense."

    Second, *Harry Potter* and even the books that Charles mentions at the end of his article are for children. Adults, especially those who have received tertiary education, should look for more complex works, and I'm not referring to so-called "graphic novels".

    I am not sure about problems concerning the number of works read, the amount of time spent reading, or even the type of works read, but the quality of what is read. Charles implies, though, that *Harry Potter* and other fare sell more but the ones that he recommends aren't.

    The issue, then, involves what people choose to read. By default, light and entertaining fare like those mentioned in the article are preferred and they are marketed heavily.

    This gives Charles and others every right to complain, and gives web loggers (especially those who have university degrees) something to think about. C'mon, don't tell me you didn't read anything more difficult than these bestsellers in university and didn't appreciate it! Because if that is so, then you just wasted time and money spent in your formal education.


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