As I Live And Read
One Book Lover's Plea For a Literati Nation
By Michael Dirda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page B01
Being away from Washington for the first part of July, I spent a lot of my time just reading -- a new biography of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, a fresh translation of Ernst Junger's classic World War I memoir, "Storm of Steel" -- and so was fairly late in coming to the National Endowment for the Arts' "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America."
No doubt I could have looked online for the report, but I prefer to regard the Web as largely an invention of the Devil. I use the thing for e-mail, but that's just about it. I have seen the best minds of the next generation, and a few from my own, destroyed by its insidious ensorcelments. (More about this shortly.)
So I checked out the report when I got back to town. In the preface, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia -- who is also a distinguished poet and critic -- announces, with justifiable sadness, that our society is undergoing a "massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information" and that "less than half of the adult population now reads literature."
Gioia thinks it unlikely that any "careful observer of contemporary American society will be greatly surprised" at this news. Setting aside the question of whether I'm a careful observer or not, I was in fact a little surprised: To me, the numbers seemed better than expected. But then, to my mind, the real literacy crisis has less to do with the number of people reading than with the narrowing range of books that Americans actually read.
According to the report, all of "one in six people reads 12 or more books in a year." Half the population doesn't look at any fiction, poetry or plays, ever. This is, obviously, just pathetic. Yet how many times have I been in elegant homes where I found lavish entertainment centers, walls of DVDs, state-of-the-art computer systems -- and not a single book, with the debatable exception of Leonard Maltin's guide to movies on video?
Still, at least one in six people reads something between bound covers each month, and I suppose we should be grateful for this saving remnant. Yet what the NEA report fails to say is that most of those people have chosen the very same 12 books, starting with "The Da Vinci Code," followed by a) the latest movie tie-in, and b) whatever Oprah Winfrey has recommended lately.
More and more, we have been straitjacketed and brainwashed by the books of the moment, the passing moment. Publishers know that they can promote almost any title to bestsellerdom. Glittery names and hot-button topics guarantee big sales, and so former presidents, like so many presidents before them (who now remembers "RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon"?), turn out their brick-like apologiae, even as aging Hollywood celebrities and rock divas produce glitzy children's picture books (no writing is harder to do well). And most of the nonfiction titles -- and half the fiction titles, too -- now seem to be about terrorism, homeland security or the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.
By "literary" reading, the NEA report means "novels, short stories, plays, or poetry." But novels is a category that embraces mysteries, chick lit, adventure novels, Westerns, fantasy and science fiction, spy thrillers, possibly even children's picture books (this isn't clear).
Now, although I enjoy work in nearly all of fiction's genres -- occasionally even Harlequin romances, whose fans probably account for most of the people who get through a dozen or more titles a year -- I still don't think of these books as, for the most part, serious reading, as Literary Reading. Let me stress that "for the most part." Any genre is capable of producing work of high artistic merit. James Crumley's "The Last Good Kiss" stands as a heartbreaking masterpiece of the modern "detective" novel, just as A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning "Possession" is fundamentally, as its subtitle announces, "a romance."As for fantasy and science fiction, few works of contemporary American fiction can match John Crowley's "Little, Big" and Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun," while a brilliant novel like Elizabeth Hand's recent "Mortal Love" deserves all the readers it can get.
But most of the bestseller list tends to be innately ephemeral -- jumped-up magazine articles, journalistic dispatches in disguise, commercial novels that are essentially screenplays-in-waiting, heavy on plot, shock and spectacle. Such works can hardly be called literary reading. They are entertainments, little more than 250-page TV shows and documentaries.
A true literary work is one that makes us see the world or ourselves in a new way. Most writers accomplish this through an imaginative and original use of language, which is why literature has been defined as writing that needs to be read (at least) twice. Great books tend to feel strange. They leave us uncomfortable. They make us turn their pages slowly. We are left shaken and stirred.
But who now is willing to put in the time or effort to read a real book? Most people expect printed matter to be easy. Too often, we expect the pages to aspire to the condition of television, and to just wash over us. But those who really care about literature nearly always sit down with a pencil in their hands, to underline, mark favorite passages, argue in the margins. The relationship between a book and reader may occasionally be likened to a love affair, but it's just as often a wrestling match. No pain, no gain.
This is why the NEA report shows that poetry is suffering most of all. Poets keep their language charged, they make severe demands on our attention, they cut us no slack. While most prose works the room like a smiling politician at a fundraiser, poetry stands quietly in the dusty street, as cool and self-contained as a lone gunfighter with his serape flapping in the wind. It's not glad-handing anybody.
Of course, we need ordinary transparent English, for business, journalism and day-to-day discourse. But literary prose and poetry -- art, in other words -- draws attention to itself, sometimes subtly, often dramatically. We smile at a sentence by Jane Austen or savor an epithet by James Joyce because their words cause the scales to drop from our eyes. Suddenly we see the world afresh.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company