eing 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.
"Reading at Risk" is right to lament the decline of what I will forthrightly call bookishness. As the report implies, the Internet seems to have delivered a possibly knock-out punch. Our children now can scarcely use a library and instead look to the Web when they need to learn just about anything. We all just click away with mouse and remote control, speeding through a blur of links, messages, images, data of all sorts. Is this reading? As Gioia reminds us, "Print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability -- and the many sorts of human continuity it allows -- would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment." So, more and more we know less and less about less and less. And we don't care. Who among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly "edgy"?
I wish I could feel more hopeful about book culture, believe more strongly that something might be done. But we've become a shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere spectacle in all the aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that just maybe we've shortchanged our better selves, that we might have listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art, read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because it was time to tune into "Law and Order" reruns, or jack in to Warhammer on our home computer, or get back to the latest clone of "The Da Vinci Code." Sooner or later, though, probably late at night or when faced with one of life's crises, we will surprise in ourselves what poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.
But come the dawn and our good intentions usually evaporate. Why persist with Plutarch or George Eliot or Beckett or William Gaddis when you can drop into a chat room or gaze at digitized lovelies or go to still another movie? Instead of reading Toqueville or Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs. In short, we turn toward the bright and shiny, the meretricious tinsel, the strings of eye-catching beads for which we exchange our intellectual birthright as for a mess of pottage. For modern Americans, only the unexamined life is worth living.
Okay, I exaggerate, and maybe I'm even wrong. (As Cromwell said, in one of my favorite sayings, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.") Literature, or at least storytelling, will certainly survive, gradually take on new forms. Maybe hypertext will even re-emerge as a viable literary genre. As every college freshman knows, art does need to make it new, else it shrivels to a dry husk.
Still I hate to think about how many great poems, stories and plays are slowly dropping out of our general consciousness because so few people read them anymore. It's heartbreaking. All of us -- even professional reviewers -- need to explore more widely and deeply the truly wonderful books of the past. And there are so many. How is it that I've never looked at Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa," the first great English novel, never read Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams," never explored Chinese literature at all? Who knows what pleasures and insights I have missed? Corny as it sounds, I believe that unless we try to familiarize ourselves with the best that human beings have accomplished, we will doom ourselves to be only half-formed wraiths, scarcely human beings at all.
Long ago, Thoreau said we should read the best books first, or we might never get the chance to read them. Life's days go by very quickly. Thoreau himself died at 45.
Carpe diem is thus good advice for readers as well as hedonists (not, by the way, mutually exclusive categories). This summer, do your bit for literacy: Pick up something serious you know you should have grappled with long ago. Maybe start with "Walden" -- and then keep going. As for me, I'll soon be breaking out my edition of "Clarissa" -- in eight volumes. Time is passing, after all, and I'm not getting any younger.
Michael Dirda, a longtime writer and editor for Book World, is the author, most recently, of "Bound to Please: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books," to be published in December by W.W. Norton.