Friday, April 13, 2012

Another D---n Fat, Square Book, Eh?

In some areas, I'm as ready as the next person to say that American society is going downhill: economically, we're in pretty bad shape now, and I'm glad that I'm not a young person fresh out of school, looking for work and trying to build an adult life. I don't believe that we're doomed, by any means, but I don't think it's going to be easy to make things better.

But in other areas I think we're better off than fifty years ago. Where I live, for example, it seems to me that people are friendlier than they were when I was growing up. Strangers smile and nod to each other as they pass on the street. It might just be that I'm more open to noticing it myself, but I don't think so. When people talk about this friendliness as a feature of the past, they are usually talking about idealized small-town life, where everybody knew each other; but I'm talking about a mid-sized city, and people who aren't already acquainted.

Even I was surprised, though, when I read this post by Alexis Madrigal, at the Atlantic online, which included this chart:

According to Gallup polls of the last sixty years, more Americans are reading nowadays. Quite a lot more of us are reading books now, in fact. Which everybody knows isn't true, they're all watching porn on the Internet! Tweeting on Facebook! Playing video games! If they're reading at all, they're Chick Lit about Sparkly Vampires! And real vampires don't sparkle!

But maybe not. I concede readily the limits of polls. Mr. Madrigal admitted, too, that one can quibble about these numbers. But no one seems to have any actual evidence that Americans aren't reading more; they're just sure that these numbers couldn't be right. Take this person, who tweeted (!) that "A lot of that so-called literature is trash, though it may be true that ppl are reading more." On Twitter, mind you, using textspeak! And that's the beauty of Twitter: the 140-character limit frees you from the need to provide evidence or make an argument, though it is still possible to link to evidence if you have it. And I don't doubt that a lot of what people are reading is "trash", but I do doubt that it was any less true in 1952. Or in the nineteenth century. Nor is there any way to know that today's trash won't be tomorrow's "so-called literature." Or vice versa: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for example, had much more cachet 150 years ago than he does now.

Mr. Madrigal has a good suggestion -- that's all it is, just a suggestion, but it makes sense to me:
So, then why is there this widespread perception that we are a fallen literary people? I think, as Marshall Kirkpatrick says, that social media acts as a kind of truth serum. Before, only the literary people had platforms. Now, all the people have platforms. And so we see that not everyone shares our love for Dos Passos. Or any books at all. Or reading in general.
This may not be the whole story, but I bet it's part of it. Though another part of it is the Chick Lit thing: in nineteenth-century America and England, male writers were sure that our nation's precious bodily fluids were being sapped by "a d----d mob of scribbling women." People were reading then, because there was no TV, but they were reading the wrong things; America needed "Man-Books." That, too, is not the whole story, but it's certainly part of the question of what is trash and what is literature.

But I digress. I'm cheered by the information that more people are reading books these days. I don't suppose that they're reading much heavy-duty stuff, but that's not really important. I think it's amazing that so many people are reading books at all, since our educational system is largely set up to make reading unpleasant, to turn people off to reading. It's a relief to know that people become readers anyhow.