Who Reads This Stuff Anyway?

bookstore

by Carl Schinasi

 

Walk into any bookstore. Thousands of books, all neatly arranged by category–cooking, fiction, history, music, sports, computers, health–line the bookshelves.
 

Look around the store. Usually, a handful of patrons browse quietly among the rows of books. A few curious customers request information at the service counter. Now look into the café area. There’s the crowd. Mostly, kids who look like they’re reading a book or studying fill the place. If we look closely, we see them surreptitiously eyeing other kids who look like they’re reading a book or studying. Some old-timers, lonely in their coffee and book or magazine, seem engrossed–until we notice them peeping over their pages at all the kids scoping each other out.
 

Stand at the bookstore’s checkout counter. Folks buy more calendars, t-shirts, cds, greeting cards, mugs, or any of the myriad doodads bookstores stock than books. 
 

So who’s buying those thousands of books; who’s reading them?  Do I sound skeptical?

 

I teach at a small liberal arts college. Ordinarily, I’m not one to tell tales out of school about my colleagues, but seldom do we engage in a serious conversation about literature, particularly contemporary literature. What’s odd about this?  I teach English! 
 

The library at my college convenes a reading group each semester. The head librarian always struggles to find ten faculty and staff to participate.
 

My brother, a well-respected Spanish scholar, tells me he rarely reads anything unrelated to his work. He spends most days researching his arcane specialty, minor mid-nineteenth century Spanish dramatists. When I pressed him, he couldn’t immediately remember the last book he read that was not associated with school or work. Eventually, he recalled reading Catcher in the Rye “for fun”—in high school—forty years ago. 
 

carl schinasi

A few nights ago I dined with a former colleague, another English professor. He is a fine poet who has taught at a major urban university for the past thirty years. Our conversation turned to the place of literature in our culture today. I asked him what books he had read recently. He replied, “I’m not reading much these days. Writing poetry and the goings-on at school keep me plenty busy.  I don’t know who’s writing what any more.”

 

So if “professional” readers aren’t reading much these days, who reads all those books lining the bookstore’s shelves?  I guess people committed to Oprah’s book club, or otherwise a hardy few too stubborn to wean themselves from the printed word. Last year, upon learning his county was considering closing “one or two libraries,” the writer Michael Haskins surmised, “I am not sure people read much anymore.” 

 

Here’s the upshot, a conjecture on my part. As a nation and as a culture, each year we read less and less—especially with the proliferation of cable television, the Internet, and video games. I’d wager that this decline in reading counts as a big reason for the recent troubles in these United States of America, even as we diversify culturally and incorporate different viewpoints into the fabric of our national consciousness. 

 

Changing lives through literature implies the act of reading adds more than an emotional or aesthetic dimension to ratiocination. Literature changes lives because reading literally stretches our brains. Reading books throws open the brain to the larger possibilities of thinking on our own and confronting life independently. Reading, and particularly works of the imagination, enables us to process and analyze information differently, more deeply, intricately, and critically, than if we just watch and listen.  The more we return to the oral tradition, the more we transform into a visual culture, and the less we read books, the more susceptible we become to the tyrannies that recently have plagued our nation.

 

To paraphrase John B.L. Soule, the aptly named nineteenth century journalist who first (before Horace Greeley) advised young men to go west, settle the frontier, and there find opportunity and freedom: Go read a book–everyone. The adventure holds the promise to change your life and, in the bargain, to create the new American frontiers we sorely need to revitalize and grow this faltering nation.  

 


 

 

 

 

 

Carl Schinasi enjoys teaching at Miles College, a historically black college, in Birmingham, Alabama. His recent works have appeared in Ducts, Slow TrainsSouthern Hum, and the essay collection, Baseball/Literature/Culture. Most summers, he can be found lolling around any baseball field anywhere.

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15 thoughts on “Who Reads This Stuff Anyway?

  1. Carl” A wonderful post to get us started on what I hope will be a wonderful new year. I’d say though that people are reading as much today as they ever were. But what are they reading? As you suggest, reading works of the imagination is different than reading the box of Cheerios on the breakfast table. And there’s the rub. What are we reading? Also, what kind of reading are we doing? I like to believe that there is something we can call “deep reading” and that that kind of reading differs from the “surface” reading we often engage in. I cannot imagine a time when we will not have books though. And I think there will always be some “deep” readers in the future. Happy New Year.

  2. More than ever, I get the impression that the younger generations view reading as boring, unimportant, and unhip.

    Books are associated with schoolwork–things you purchase, use for a semester or a year, and return. Once school concludes, I imagine the amount of reading most people do grinds to a halt. Reading has never been associated with pleasure for many folks and isn’t something that they would independently pursue.

    Further, reading continues to be seen as uncool amongst peer groups. On the “favorite books” section of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, more and more people are writing comments like “Yeah right” or “I don’t read.” It is clear that reading is not a socially acceptable activity in many circles.

    These observations lead me to wonder who or what is responsible for this lack of interest in reading? Did the older generations fail to transmit the importance of reading to their children? (Perhaps, as Carl suggests, they’re not reading either!) Are teachers partially to blame for not engaging students with literature? Or are there simply too many distractions and high tech gadgets to make people want to curl up with a book?

  3. Many of my writer friends, people in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, — do not, to my surprise read out of their field, in an exploratory way, just because they have to, because its like breathing for them. And these are people who did not grow up with a lot of hi-tech gadgetry. Are our numbers shrinking and will book lovers end up like those in Farenheit 451, reduced to memorizing all the essential books in order to preserve them from burning? A strange fate, and not one we’re close to, but the sense that there are fewer and fewer real readers is disturbing.

    In the CLTL class that I teach most of the women are in their 30’s and 40’s — so I am out of touch with young people. I’m wondering, hopefully, whether things like Ebooks and Kindle have taken the place of actual books and that a young person would be more likely to read on the screen than on the page. I am wedded to the palpable object of a book, the shape,size and heft of a book, the feel of the paper. But is reading any different done on an Ebook — and will these “gadgets” help keep readers with us?

  4. Bob, your point about “deep reading” certainly reminds us of different kinds of readers and reading. With this comment, you caught me. I framed my little essay to skirt the question, “What constitutes reading?” It’s a damn important question, along with “What is good (or important or mind-stretching) to read,” and might be an issue for someone to continue to tackle, following up on Tam’s “A Hot Topic” essay. Allan offers some answers in the studies he cites in his response to Tam’s essay. Caleb Craig’s article in the Dec. 7, 2007, issue of The New Yorker alludes to the “skill” of reading in general, as he reviews the sad decline in reading and readers today. As Craig puts it, “More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability.” Too much, unfortunately, Craig’s article supports what you see, Jen and Tam. I’m sure he’d agree with your insights. Then there’s our old friend Leslie Fiedler who 50 years ago implicitly predicted the decline of readers and the transformation of literature in his still current essay, “Waiting for the End.” Tam your mention of Ebooks and Kindle books brought Fiedler’s “oldie but goody” to mind. Bob, I too cannot imagine a time without books and by looking at the bookshelves in the picture that heads my piece, it’s difficult to believe books are in decline. But the times they are a changin’ and who knows what changes time and technology may bring—to books, readers, and the “skill” of reading.

  5. I think young people read and write a lot, just in non-traditional formats like social networking websites and instant messaging. The internet is, after all, based around the concept of hypertext.

    That being said, these formats aren’t conducive to “deep reading.” It’s a fact that the generation that has grown up around the internet has a tendency to quickly compartamentalize information without careful consideration (hyper + text).

    The impact that these technologies has had on the way that young people engage with information is substantial, but I’m still skeptical about the argument that entertainment media technology causes social problems–likely because I’m a generation Y’er.

    Kindles and e-readers are just the beginning of new ways that books will be disseminated, but hypertext novels have been breaking new ground in narrative performance since the early 90’s. Although they haven’t caught on yet, I think that as internet access becomes more mobile, print media will evolve excitingly.

    I’m not worried. Things change and grow, and there’s no going back.

  6. This discussion reminds me of a conversation I had not long ago with a neurologist at Mass General Hospital who knows a lot about literature. I asked her if she thought there was any clear scientific data that demonstrates that reading literature changes the brain. I told her I wanted to know this because I thought it might help CLTL make its case about the importance of litreature. Her reply was telling: She said it’s too bad I had to ask such a question. Literature, without doubt, changes the brain, she said–but we shouldn’t have to rely on contemporary science to confirm this. I realized then that most of the great philosophers and writers had been saying the same thing for a very long time –Aristotle, for example.

  7. Bob, I agree–reading stretches the brain. But as you indicate above, do different kinds of reading change the brain in different ways or to different degrees? In an interesting post the editor of Failbetter, a very good online lit. journal says,.

    “The rise of electronic publishing, and the decline of print, are certainly changing the way fiction and poetry are distributed and read [and he indicates later, written]. But how is this shift changing reading—the thing itself? Jakob Nielsen and Mark Bauerlein argue that when people read onscreen, reading becomes something else—something less than it once was, more akin to scanning than to immersing oneself in a text. But if you’re here, you know this isn’t necessarily the case.

    Still, engaging with a text onscreen is clearly different than doing so with a printed work.”

    So what does this mean or portend? . I think it “lessens,” for lack of a better word, the reading experience, limits the possibilities for “deep reading.” So, as you imply Allan, technology changes the reading experience. But who knows what will happen? William Gass seems to think nothing good–for literature or reading. On the other hand, someone as important as Robert Coover has been noodling around with the hypertext novel for almost 20 years. This brings to mind the rise of the graphic novel. One wonders how these novels affect the reading experience and the brain, too. Will reading this combination of pictures and words stretch the brain as reading a “regular” serious novel? Or will people tend to skip the words and fill in the blanks by looking at the pictures thereby detracting from the actual “reading” experience. This often happens when people watch tv; they let the pictures, not the words tell the story. So since the discussion has moved into these different areas, I come back to my original question, “who’s reading this stuff anyway?”–all those books, paricularly “serious” literature.

  8. Carl: I agree with you, on the whoie. The medium is not in itself the message, but it does change the message. I often joke that we have watched too much television and that the screen culture is beginning to cause changes in the brain that look very much like what we could call brain damage. Students often seem distracted, and the flickering images on a computer creen, the short text-message on the cell phone, and so on might be contributing to that new shaping of the brain– and to a new sense of time as well. One of the values of “deep” reading I now believe is that “deep reading” slows us down and so takes us out of the buzz and hustle of ordinary life. It’s a kind of meditaion perhaps.

  9. I agree Bob with what you say about deep reading — it does slow us down and at its best, a deep reader almost goes into a trance state which can be transformative. Am I claiming too much for the act of deep reading? I can say this has been my experience, though as my life gets busier and more intruded upon by the internet, I feel I’ve had less and less of this experience. I miss it.

    About reading on the screen and reading on the page —
    I think reading on the page is much more an act of privacy — I would say creative privacy — since the end result is not a more interior person but a person who comes out of the deep reading experience more curious and more wonderous about human life. Whereas when I read on the screen I’m quite aware that I am there at a site that is infinitely and instantly connected to others — quite a different experience I think.

  10. I agree and disagree with your points. There have been studies in the field of education that demonstrate the differences in how the Silent Generation (50-60s), Generation Xers (70-80s) and Generation Yers (90-00s) learn. Generation Xers have the ability to process information 10x faster than their predecessors, and Generation Yers have the ability to process information 10x faster than theirs. But again, is this at the sacrifice of deep reading? If so, are there benefits we can pair with the problems everyone is positing?

    Supposedly, it’s all caused by the MULTI-tasking and imMEDIAcy that comes from multi-media.

    But I’m not sure you can call it brain damage. Maybe I’m just arguing semantics, but I think it’s just a new way that young people are learning. Sorry I don’t have any references to share here right now, but I’ll post a few later.

  11. Guys and gals, this has been an amazing, thoughtful, vigorous exchange. Some last thoughts. Jenni’s idea that teachers aren’t teaching novels gives pause: few of my students, albeit they come from disadvantaged backgroungs, read. But Bob’s comment about “the importance of literature,” rang a bell. I think we all agree literature, works of the imagination, and their readers will survive, in some form or fashion. Let me give the last word (from me anyway) to Mr. Fiedler, from his essay, The End of the Novel. “Still…there will always be the novels which have survived…[E]ven if no one ever writes another Moby Dick, someone will be around to read the first one… {A]nd it pleases me to envision a tiny few gathering…to discuss with each other the remaining great books…”

  12. I am an English major from the 70s who has been frustrated with my inability to carve out a time for “deep reading” as I raised my family and worked. My limited time for classics and Roman/Greek history resulted in short-term retention. I ALWAYS had a BOOK with me but since I prefer long, complicated books, carrying a large, heavy book was not conducive to also carrying an infant and pushing a stroller into the airport. Oh yes, I love the feel of paper and spine, particularly smeared with melted chocolate!

    I now have a Kindle. I have almost 100 titles from which I can select classic, comedy, spiritual, tragic, philosophic at the touch of the button. I can read for hours on end, on the treadmill, with a cup of tea in my cozy chair by the fire, under the bedcovers, at the doctor’s office, waiting for lunch, etc. I can begin a book, bookmark passages, move material to clippings files, move to another title, browse for new titles. I have benefitted from my “power” deep reading more than years of lugging and losing literature everywhere I went. I am literally more content, literarily challenged and no longer relegated to reading cereal boxes when my book was in the car in the snow-packed driveway!

    Thank you for your discussions – this is my first ever blog and I have enjoyed everyone’s points of view!

  13. I’m an oddity then. I am a thirty years old with two degrees and find myself reading more printed literary fiction now than ever before. I also spend many hours each week reading on the Internet.

    Few of my friends, even the well-educated and the academics, read any novels. If they do read literature, they usually try to read a few classics each year. I know a few writers who read daily, but they read much less than I do and seem to be less apt to discuss and analyze the mechanics of literary texts.

    The more I read and contemplate literature in relation to other art forms, the more I rediscover how it is the most difficult to enjoy today, but that it also the greatest art form we have. Unfortunately literature is misunderstood and thought by all too many to be about “the story”, which can be translated into film, so people wait for “the movie to come out” (and if it doesn’t they just don’t read the book). But the story is not the novel.

    A film cannot be reduced to a book any more than a book can be reduced to a film, yet most people I encounter seem to think books are primitive technologies for conveying the story better suited for movies, which amounts to an ignorant misunderstanding of the very structure and form of literature.

  14. Carl,

    Are you my old friend, Carl, from Bayside High and Queens College? Shockingly, you look like you are and the clothes fit. You look well.

    It’s a rainy, surprisingly cool day and since I can’t work in the garden I am at the computer, thought of you today and googled.

    Ruth Dabrowski Walsh

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