I didn’t comment on the recent NEA report on American reading levels because I really didn’t feel I had anything to add. But CAFF at Tingle Alley and Rake’s Progress both noted a mini-debate going on over the meaning of the report involving Charles Taylor at Salon (warning ad viewing required) and Andrew Solomon in the New York Times. I thought I would try and shed some light on this issue from my perspective.
Solomon started things off last Saturday in the NYT by bemoaning what he called the Closing of the American Book:
There is a basic social divide between those for whom life is an accrual of fresh experience and knowledge, and those for whom maturity is a process of mental atrophy. The shift toward the latter category is frightening.
Solomon blames this shift away from reading, and by extension an active mental life, on a visual culture that is passive and escapist:
The electronic media, on the other hand, tend to be torpid. Despite the existence of good television, fine writing on the Internet, and video games that test logic, the electronic media by and large invite inert reception. One selects channels, but then the information comes out preprocessed. Most people use television as a means of turning their minds off, not on. Many readers watch television without peril; but for those for whom television replaces reading, the consequences are far-reaching.
But Solomon also blames the academy for ruining a love of literature:
It is important to acknowledge that the falling-off of reading has to do not only with the incursion of anti-intellectualism, but also with a flawed intellectualism. The ascendancy of post-structuralism in the 1980’s coincided with the beginning of the catastrophic downturn in reading; deconstructionism’s suggestion that all text is equal in its meanings and the denigration of the canon led to the devaluation of literature. The role of literature is to illuminate, to strengthen, to explain why some aspect of life is moving or beautiful or terrible or sad or important or insignificant for people who might otherwise not understand so much or so well. Reading is experience, but it also enriches other experience.
Lastly, Solomon calls for a cultural change and in doing so brings up a critical point:
Even more immediate than the crises in health and politics brought on by the decline of reading is the crisis in national education. We have one of the most literate societies in history. What is the point of having a population that can read, but doesn’t? We need to teach people not only how, but also why to read. The struggle is not to make people read more, but to make them want to read more.
I think Solomon is largely on target here. Visual and passive activities easily distract a busy and hyperactive culture from deeper, and thus more demanding, cultural experiences. I know in my own life that I must consciously guard against letting TV, the web, video games, and other electronic media sucking up all of my leisure time. I have books that I want to read but it takes discipline to commit to doing so. It also takes concentration and time for this reading to pay off. A great many books can’t simply be picked up and scanned for a few minutes and really be enjoyed
Secondly, Solomon is right that the goal should be to convince people that reading, and reading quality, can make a difference in the quality of their life and their community. Reading can expand your mind, your imagination, your vocabulary, and your perspective, etc. It can be entertainment, education, therapy, relaxation, spiritual growth, and so on. It is a tool to be used to accomplish things, not some sort of requirement for a caricature of the mature and educated adult; it is way to deepen your life not a burdensome responsibility necessary to prove you are “cultured” or something you pretend to enjoy to seem smart.
So what’s not to like about Solomon’s argument? Well, Charles Taylor apparently took offense at Solomon’s attack on our visual culture:
What’s wrong with his piece, and with almost every other literary attack on visual culture, is the inability to understand that there is such a thing as visual literacy, and the assumption that reading is a mentally active experience and looking a passive one.
Taylor proceeds to stretch a valid point, that reading can involve bad content and passivity just as much as visual media, to the breaking point:
And what good will it do if we succeed? Reading, for Solomon, is always, without exception, a good thing. To hear him tell it, no one ever picks up a trashy book to kill time, no one ever gets around to that classic he always meant to read and finds that it bores him silly. Reading will always leave us better informed and better citizens, Solomon would like to think. But the very nature of a democratic society doesn’t offer any guarantees.
This may be true but so what? Taylor seems to think that the foundation of Solomon’s argument is snobbery as he goes on to bemoan how snooty book people can be and how unappreciative they are of visual culture.
Taylor misses the point. Let’s grant him his caveat and admit that there is plenty of bad literature out there and plenty of good visual media as well. The problem is that the vast majority of people are not engaging in intellectual stimulating visual media but rather plastered in front of the kind of passive and brain killing visual culture readily available. They are watching reality television or surfing the net for porn or playing video games for hours on end. Solomon isn’t arguing that good reading trumps all other forms but that our culture is dominated by bad media at the expense of good things like reading.
The question is where the threat lies. Currently, I think the danger is from passivity and mind-numbing visualization in the form of TV, videos, games, etc. Youth culture – and this subset seems to dominate popular culture – is set at a frantic pace that makes sitting down with a book seem uncool and a waste of time. Solomon is pointing to this urge in popular culture and raising the alarm about its effect. Instead of recognizing this threat and recommending a search for quality in all mediums, Taylor seems to argue that people don’t read because books are tedious and boring; because book people are snobs that don’t know how to talk to everyday people. This is where Taylor goes off the rails. The threat to intelligent culture is not from literati snobs who demean intelligent visual media to promote boring and out of date high brow literature. Instead intelligent culture is threatened by the race for the bottom; people marketing books like TV and video – fast paced, action packed, and full of juicy gossip, sex and violence. As Solomon wisely points out, those who have most undermined cultural literacy are those that pretend that there is no difference between an episode of the Simpson’s and a novel by Jane Austen or Saul Bellow (pick your own novelist here if those two turn you off).
It seems to me that the insistence that all culture and all mediums are equal has allowed large swaths of the country to be satisfied in their ignorance. You read novels I play video games, you read poetry I listen to hip-hop – its all good. Unless those of us who value and enjoy literature make a point to explain why it is valuable and enjoyable, unless we advocate a return to – or at least a movement toward – a higher standard for culture, then we can expect the least common denominator drivel to dominate the pixels, airwaves, and living rooms of America.
Attacking snobbery has a long history in America and I am sure Taylor gets a good feeling defending the visual world from the literati but snobbery is not the problem. In fact, it would be better if it were the problem. I would be happy with more slobbery and hypocrisy. At least then we would be acknowledging standards and ideals even as we secretly fail to meet them. We have raced past snobbery and hypocrisy to open celebration of vulgarity and mediocrity. Taylor attempts a lame defense of the everyman but as a result lets him wallow in his ignorance. At least Solomon calls us to something higher.