November 20, 2017

The books are many; the readers are few

The Books are Many; The Readers are Few
by Eric Rigney

If you are reading this, you are abnormal. If you get past this sentence, you’re just plain strange. Why are you still here?! Go watch TV or something!

There. Now that we’ve got rid of the non-readers among us, let’s talk about them. Is anyone else bothered by the fact that no one reads anymore? I know, I know, someone will point out that the New York Times bestseller list proves otherwise, that the millions of dollars authors reel in every year indicate that people are reading books by the gross. We’re in a society of books, someone will say, more literate than any other generation before us.

Yeah, yeah. I know. Books, books everywhere, to paraphrase the poet. But so what? I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of the books that pop up on the bestseller lists are what I call “TV Books” — to whit, books that offer no challenge or in-depth treatment of a subject whatsoever. They are fluff. Reading them is similar to watching TV: you sit back, glide effortlessly through page after page, letting each meager morsel fall into your system like a literary IV drip, no chewing required.

So I am aware that millions of books sell every year, and I know that people snatch paperbacks off the shelves like sunscreen at a nudist colony, and in some ways I think that’s great. But I’m talking about Reading, with a capital R. Whatever happened to Reading? How did we drift into an Orwell-esque society where the path of least literary resistance is championed? Where one only need know a smattering of vocabulary (primarily verbs and adjectives) in order to read most of the books published?

Now, lest some of you shake your heads and accuse me of being elitist about literacy, let me assure you: I am not speaking of an Ivory Tower philosophy of reading, where only those “intellectual” enough to read really hard, “intellectual” books that are about esoteric subjects are worthy to be called Readers (by the way, does anyone else find it funny that the word “esoteric” is esoteric?). In fact, I am very suspicious of people who call themselves “intellectuals.” They strike me as people who, as the saying goes, have come to believe their own press releases. Intellectual reading for the sake of intellectual reading is not Reading.

Nope, no Ivory Tower literary philosophy is being advocated here. On the contrary, I am lamenting the fact that the average, non-“intellectual” Joe Blow is no longer a Reader. Because years ago, everyone from your average farmer to your highest academic professors and government officials were Readers who were basically familiar with pretty much the same literature: allegorical novels like “Pilgrim’s Progress,” political pamphlets like “Common Sense,” satire like “A Modest Proposal.” The “average” reader was to some degree versed in all of these, not to mention the Greek classics and such. These days, on the other hand, brilliant works by luminaries such as Bunyan, Paine, Swift, and Homer would not even make a dent in the public consciousness, to say nothing of inspiring or inflaming anyone.

Don’t get me wrong. I am also not advocating a boring, totally pragmatic literary life for anyone. Pleasure reading is wonderful, and serves a purpose. He is deprived who has never curled up with a good book that he can’t seem to put down, oblivious to whatever else is going on in the world around him. What a treasure a good potboiler is. But is that all there is? Why can’t you have both? I have a friend who reads romance novels voraciously, and I say more power to her, but she has not let herself become intellectually lazy, unable to handle “meatier” literature. Thus, I believe she has the best of both worlds.

And I believe everyone can have the best of both worlds. You can read strictly for pleasure at times, and I believe you should, for your mental health. But don’t deny yourself the finer things. Don’t deny yourself the priceless experience of reading a book that makes you soul-search, or makes you see something in a different light or question preconceived notions, or challenges you to action. Don’t rob yourself of the potentially life-changing impact of books that take an unblinking look at the condition of mankind, or novels that plumb the depths of what William Faulkner called “the verities”: love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice. Don’t deprive yourself of the potentially frustrating yet positively gratifying experience of reading a paragraph and saying, “Huh? I’ve got to read that again!” It might take you longer to get through the book, but it’s worth it — capital-R Reading is not, and should not be, easy.

No, I am not the Jeremiah of modern literacy, here to prophesy philological doom and destruction. Life will go on, even if we refuse to examine it in any real way. And yes, this is a free country — read vomit bags all day if you want to. I just hope I’m not the only one who thinks it’s sad that Reading seems to be as rare as a tuxedo at a monster-truck rally these days. And I hope we as a society can work together to remedy the problem very soon, for the sake of our collective brain.

Now turn off your computer and go read a book.