Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Modest Proposal for Gentle Readers

The Washington Post has an editorial from a librarian who's worried. She works at an independent DC area school and she's noticed that kids don't read anymore. Even worse, the librarians that she works with don't read anymore!

"In other words, literacy today is defined less by how English departments or a librarian might teach Wordsworth or Faulkner than by how we find our way through the digital forest of information overload."

As with most jobs that increasingly involve surfing the net, she finds that this new orientation is over-hyped:

"The buzzword in the trade is "information literacy," a misnomer, because what it is really about is mastering computer skills, not promoting a love of reading and books."

She cites the common argument that kids will start reading when they get to university. She doesn't buy it. I don't either. Our kids don't read. Even our grad students have started to read the on-line reviews of books instead of the books themselves. Libraries have started replacing books with DVDs and even video games. Nobody knows what to do.

Here's the cold, hard truth: Reading is dying out. Ever since the introduction of TV, active literacy rates have declined. That is the number of people who are regularly reading (not just those who can read) has steadily dropped. With the introduction of the Internet, it kept declining, but at a faster rate. Reading rates took a nose dive.

According to the despairing librarian, most of the strategies to get people reading aren't working. So what is to be done?

Why not give up?

I mean, you can lead a jackass to water, but you can't make him drink. It seems to me that there's as much shame in the fact that you have a smarty wasting her time trying to make professional shoppers read books as there is in the fact that most people don't actually read books. In other words, we don't have that many smarties as it is, and we're telling them to waste their time trying to get non-readers to read?

It also seems to me that our terror over the death of reading is due to a mistaken teleology that says that "Decline leads inevitably to collapse". In other words, because the culture is declining and becoming trite, because people are turning into these weird trained animals that return dutifully to the mall three times a week, and because all indicators of "higher culture" are in the doldrums, we assume that civilization as we know it will end, a pretty common refrain these days.

But, what if, and this is the optimistic possibility(!), we're just entering the Dark Ages? It seems to me that there will always be a few remaining "bookish" types left. Sure, maybe they'll be regularly beaten by the Master's students from my university! But, they will be there. In fact, I've taught about 300 students now, and I know that one of them was an active reader.

So, why not behave like they did during the last Dark Ages and keep reading alive through secret societies, a monkish clerisy, and lending libraries? It's occurred to me that the best thing that us bookish types can do today is to drop out of society. Of course, we'll have to be careful that the feds don't think we're terrorists! But, why not form secret societies based around esoteric knowledge? Why not become the Rosicrucians of reading?

Of course, we'll have to find storage to keep the books in. But, it seems to me that most libraries are throwing piles of stuff out right now. So, what we'll do is snap up all of the old books and store them in a cold, dry place. The reason for this is that they won't be consumed by fires and we can still live in a relatively normal way. I'm thinking that we should rent those store-all garages and fill them with books.

Also fuck the Internet! We shouldn't waste our time posting books to the net because, as far as I can tell, most online users don't read them anyway. It just takes too much time and allows people to say: "Why are you holding on to that there old book for? It's online!"

Most importantly, we need to form real-world social relationships! I know that this is hard for most of us, but we need a network of book people to borrow from and to discuss books with. We need to create the sort of free and spontaneous communal joy that consumer culture is inherently opposed to! We need to be exuberant- instead of wasting our lives away trying to 'reach' the militantly stupid, we need to return to the real work of culture- creating worlds and ideas and societies out of whole cloth.

So, let's start today.


Hiromi said...

I hate reading books online. I hate reading most things online, in fact. the only things I read online are the occasional blog and email. I prefer reading newspapers and books in physical form. Easier on the eyes and neck and wrist.

I'm thinking that maybe readers might form some sort of elite, but who am I fooling? People give us the rolleyes at best, and want to beat us up at worst. Secret society it is.

gregvw said...

Not reading is definitely a concern, but let us also mourn how incredibly fashionable it is to be useless at math.

Rufus said...

Isn't that weird too? I never felt like I was particularly swift at math. But, if I take it slow, I can learn it. I'd say that the stuff that takes you a few weeks to figure out, probably takes me a few months to get. Most people I meet seem to think that you're either able to do the highest level problems while in the cradle, or you might as well forget it. Maybe that's the Good Will Hunting effect!

Rufus said...

Hiromi- I hate reading books online as well. It's the headaches that you get after a page. It's fascinating to me that, if I wrote a 20-page political treatise, printed it up, and handed it out to people, it would seem like a nice, short read. But, if I posted the same amount of text here, it would seem excruciatingly long. Technologies train the brain to accept information in their way. Books online are like sandwiches online.

As for other people, it probably has something to do with location. Here in upstate NY, I keep getting in this situation in which someone asks me a question, I give them a thoughtful answer in return, and they look at me like I'm a prick!

Hiromi said...

I keep getting in this situation in which someone asks me a question, I give them a thoughtful answer in return, and they look at me like I'm a prick!

Heh. That's the funniest thing I've heard in a long time.