Article — From the February 2008 issue

Staying Awake

Notes on the alleged decline of reading

Some people lament the disappearance of the spotted owl from our forests; others sport bumper stickers boasting that they eat fried spotted owls. It appears that books, too, are a threatened species, and reactions to the news are similarly various. In 2004 a National Endowment for the Arts survey revealed that 43 percent of Americans polled hadn’t read a book all year, and last November, in its report “To Read or Not to Read,” the NEA lamented the decline of reading, warning that non-readers do less well in the job market and are less useful citizens in general. This moved Motoko Rich of the New York Timesto write a Sunday feature in which she inquired of various bookish people why anyone should read at all. The Associated Press ran their own poll and announced last August that 27 percent of their respondents had spent the year bookless, a better figure than the NEA’s, but the tone of the AP piece was remarkable for its complacency. Quoting a project manager for a telecommunications company in Dallas who said, “I just get sleepy when I read,” the AP correspondent, Alan Fram, commented, “a habit with which millions of Americans can doubtless identify.”

The Associated Press polled 1,003 adult Americans. The NEA’s “Reading at Risk” survey of 2002 announced dire declines in the number of book-readers. Their 1992 poll of 13,000 adults showed that 60.9 percent had read any book, but in 2002, only 56.6 percent had; in 1992, 54 percent of adult Americans admitted to having read a work of literature that year; ten years later only 46.7 percent did. Strangely, the NEA excludes nonfiction from “literature” in its polls, so that you could have read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Voyage of the Beagle, Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, and the entire Letters and Diaries of Virginia Woolf that year and yet be counted as not having read anything of literary value.

Self-satisfaction with the inability to remain conscious when faced with printed matter seems questionable. But I also want to question the assumption—whether gloomy or faintly gloating—that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?

For most of human history, most people could not read at all. Literacy was not only a demarcator between the powerful and the powerless; it was power itself. Pleasure was not an issue. The ability to maintain and understand commercial records, the ability to communicate across distance and in code, the ability to keep the word of God to yourself and transmit it only at your own will and in your own time—these are formidable means of control over others and aggrandizement of self. Every literate society began with literacy as a constitutive prerogative of the (male) ruling class.

Writing-and-reading very gradually filtered downward, becoming less sacred as it became less secret, less directly potent as it became more popular. The Romans ended up letting slaves, women, and such rabble read and write, but they got their comeuppance from the religion-based society that succeeded them. In the Dark Ages, a Christian priest could read at least a little, but most laymen didn’t, and many women couldn’t—not only didn’t but couldn’t: reading was considered an inappropriate activity for women, as in some Muslim societies today.

In Europe, one can perceive through the Middle Ages a slow broadening of the light of the written word, which brightens into the Renaissance and shines out with Gutenberg. Then, before you know it, slaves are reading, and revolutions are made with pieces of paper called Declarations of this and that, and schoolmarms replace gunslingers all across the Wild West, and people are mobbing the steamer delivering the latest installment of a new novel to New York, crying, “Is Little Nell dead? Is she dead?”

I see a high point of reading in the United States from around 1850 to about 1950—call it the century of the book—the high point from which the doomsayers see us declining. As the public school came to be considered fundamental to democracy, and as libraries went public and flourished, reading was assumed to be something we shared in common. Teaching from first grade up centered on “English,” not only because immigrants wanted their children fluent in it but because literature—fiction, scientific works, history, poetry—was a major form of social currency.

To look at schoolbooks from 1890 or 1910 can be scary; the level of literacy and general cultural knowledge expected of a ten-year-old is rather awesome. Such texts, and lists of the novels kids were expected to read in high school up to the 1960s, lead one to believe that Americans really wanted and expected their children not only to be able to read but to do it, and not to fall asleep doing it.

Literacy was not only the front door to any kind of individual economic and class advancement; it was an important social activity. The shared experience of books was a genuine bond. A person reading seems to be cut off from everything around them, almost as much as someone shouting banalities into a cell phone as they ram their car into your car—that’s the private aspect of reading. But there is a large public element, too, which consists in what you and others have read.

As people these days can maintain nonthreatening, unloaded, sociable conversation by talking about who murdered whom on the latest hit TV police procedural or mafia show, so strangers on the train or coworkers on the job in 1841 could talk perfectly unaffectedly together about The Old Curiosity Shop and whether poor Little Nell was going to cop it. Since public school education was strong on poetry and various literary classics, a lot of people would recognize and enjoy a reference to Tennyson, or Scott, or Shakespeare—shared properties, a social meeting ground. A man might be less likely to boast about falling asleep at the sight of a Dickens novel than to feel left out of things by not having read it.

The social quality of literature is still visible in the popularity of bestsellers. Publishers get away with making boring, baloney-mill novels into bestsellers via mere P.R. because people need bestsellers. It is not a literary need. It is a social need. We want books everybody is reading (and nobody finishes) so we can talk about them.

If we brought books over from England by ship these days, crowds would have swarmed on the docks of New York to greet the final volume of Harry Potter, crying, “Did she kill him? Is he dead?” The Potter boom was a genuine social phenomenon, like the worship of rock stars and the whole subculture of popular music, which offer adolescents and young adults both an exclusive in-group and a shared social experience.

Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.

Moneymaking entities controlled by obscenely rich executives and their anonymous accountants have acquired most previously independent publishing houses with the notion of making quick profit by selling works of art and information. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that such people get sleepy when they read. Within the corporate whales are many luckless Jonahs who were swallowed alive with their old publishing house—editors and such anachronisms—people who read wide awake. Some of them are so alert they can scent out promising new writers. Some of them have their eyes so wide open they can even proofread. But it doesn’t do them much good. For years now, most editors have had to waste most of their time on an unlevel playing field, fighting Sales and Accounting.

In those departments, beloved by the CEOs, a “good book” means a high gross and a “good writer” is one whose next book can be guaranteed to sell better than the last one. That there are no such writers is of no matter to the corporationeers, who don’t comprehend fiction even if they run their lives by it. Their interest in books is self-interest, the profit that can be made out of them—or occasionally, for the top executives, the Murdochs and other Merdles, the political power they can wield through them; but that is merely self-interest again, personal profit.

And not only profit but growth. If there are stockholders, their holdings must increase yearly, daily, hourly. The AP article ascribed “listlessness” and “flat” book sales to the limited opportunity for expansion. But until the corporate takeovers, publishers did not expect expansion; they were quite happy if their supply and demand ran parallel, if their books sold steadily, flatly. How can you make book sales expand endlessly, like the American waistline?

Michael Pollan explains in The Omnivore’s Dilemma how you do it with corn. When you’ve grown enough corn to fill every reasonable demand, you create unreasonable demands—artificial needs. So, having induced the government to declare corn-fed beef to be the standard, you feed corn to cattle, who cannot digest corn, tormenting and poisoning them in the process. And you use the fats and sweets of corn by-products to make an endless array of soft drinks and fast foods, addicting people to a fattening yet inadequate diet in the process. And you can’t stop these processes, because if you did profits might become listless, even flat.

This system has worked only too well for corn, and indeed throughout American agriculture and manufacturing, which is why we increasingly eat junk and make junk while wondering why tomatoes in Europe taste like tomatoes and foreign cars are well engineered.

You can cover Iowa border to border with Yellow Corn #2, but with books you run into problems. Standardization of the product and its production can take you only so far—because there is some intellectual content to even the most brainless book. People will buy interchangeable bestsellers, formula thrillers, romances, mysteries, pop biographies, and hot-topic books up to a point, but their product loyalty is defective. A book has to be read, it takes time, effort—you have to be awake to do it. And so you want some reward. The loyal fans bought Death at One O’Clock and Death at Two O’Clock . . . yet all of a sudden they won’t buy Death at Eleven O’Clock even though it follows exactly the same surefire formula as all the others. The readers got bored. What is a good growth-capitalist publisher to do? Where can he be safe?

He can find some safety in exploiting the social function of literature. That includes the educational, of course—schoolbooks and college texts, favorite prey of corporations—as well as the bestsellers and popular books of fiction and nonfiction that provide a common current topic and a bond among people at work and in book clubs. Beyond that, I think corporations have been foolish to look for safety or reliable growth in publishing.

Even during what I have called the “century of the book,” when it was taken for granted that many people read and enjoyed fiction and poetry, how many people in fact had or could make much time for reading once they were out of school? During those years most Americans worked hard and worked long hours. Weren’t there always many who never read a book at all, and never very many who read a lot of books? We don’t know how many, because we didn’t have polls to worry us about it.

If people make time to read, it’s because it’s part of their jobs, or other media aren’t readily available, or they aren’t much interested in them—or because they enjoy reading. Lamenting over percentage counts induces a moralizing tone: It is bad that we don’t read; we should read more; we must read more. Concentrating on the drowsy fellow in Dallas, perhaps we forget our own people, the hedonists who read because they want to. Were such people ever in the majority?

I like knowing that a hard-bitten Wyoming cowboy carried a copy of Ivanhoe in his saddlebag for thirty years, and that the mill girls of New England had Browning Societies. There are readers like that still. Our schools are no longer serving them (or anybody else) well, on the whole; yet some kids come out of even the worst schools clutching a book to their heart.

Of course books are now only one of the “entertainment media,” but when it comes to delivering actual pleasure, they’re not a minor one. Look at the competition. Governmental hostility was emasculating public radio while Congress allowed a few corporations to buy out and debase private radio stations. Television has steadily lowered its standards of what is entertaining until most programs are either brain-numbing or actively nasty. Hollywood remakes remakes and tries to gross out, with an occasional breakthrough that reminds us what a movie can be when undertaken as art. And the Internet offers everything to everybody: but perhaps because of that all-inclusiveness there is curiously little aesthetic satisfaction to be got from Web-surfing. You can look at pictures or listen to music or read a poem or a book on your computer, but these artifacts are made accessible by the Web, not created by it and not intrinsic to it. Perhaps blogging is an effort to bring creativity to networking, and perhaps blogs will develop aesthetic form, but they certainly haven’t done it yet.

Besides, readers aren’t viewers; they recognize their pleasure as different from that of being entertained. Once you’ve pressed the on button, the TV goes on, and on, and on, and all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness—not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering. In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can’t lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head. A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won’t do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it—everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not “interactive” with a set of rules or options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you’re fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

This is crucial, the fact that a book is a thing, physically there, durable, indefinitely reusable, an object of value.

I am far from dismissing the vast usefulness of electronic publication, but my guess is that print-on-demand will become and remain essential. Electrons are as evanescent as thoughts. History begins with the written word. Much of civilization now relies on the durability of the bound book—its capacity for keeping memory in solid, physical form. The continuous existence of books is a great part of our continuity as an intelligent species. We know it: we see their willed destruction as an ultimate barbarism. The burning of the Library of Alexandria has been mourned for two thousand years, as people may well remember the desecration and destruction of the great Library in Baghdad.

To me, then, one of the most despicable things about corporate publishers and chain booksellers is their assumption that books are inherently worthless. If a title that was supposed to sell a lot doesn’t “perform” within a few weeks, it gets its covers torn off—it is trashed. The corporate mentality recognizes no success that is not immediate. This week’s blockbuster must eclipse last week’s, as if there weren’t room for more than one book at a time. Hence the crass stupidity of most publishers (and, again, chain booksellers) in handling backlists.

Over the years, books kept in print may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for their publisher and author. A few steady earners, even though the annual earnings are in what is now dismissively called “the midlist,” can keep publishers in business for years, and even allow them to take a risk or two on new authors. If I were a publisher, I’d rather own J.R.R. Tolkien than J. K. Rowling.

But capitalists count weeks, not years. To get big quick money, the publisher must risk a multimillion-dollar advance on a hot author who’s supposed to provide this week’s bestseller. These millions—often a dead loss—come out of funds that used to go to pay normal advances to reliable midlist authors and the royalties on older books that kept selling. Many midlist authors have been dropped, many reliably selling books remaindered, in order to feed Moloch. Is that any way to run a business?

I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that. How-to books and the like have some market predictability. But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature—art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage. Amused contempt is about the pleasantest emotion either partner feels for the other. Their definitions of what profiteth a man are too different.

So why don’t the corporations drop the literary publishing houses, or at least the literary departments of the publishers they bought, with amused contempt, as unprofitable? Why don’t they let them go back to muddling along making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties, while plowing most profits back into taking chances on new writers? Since kids coming up through the schools are seldom taught to read for pleasure and anyhow are distracted by electrons, the relative number of book-readers is unlikely to see any kind of useful increase and may well shrink further. What’s in this dismal scene for you, Mr. Corporate Executive? Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?

Is it because you think if you own publishing you can control what’s printed, what’s written, what’s read? Well, lotsa luck, sir. It’s a common delusion of tyrants. Writers and readers, even as they suffer from it, regard it with amused contempt.

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