Thus far, I've refrained from commenting on the ubiquitious "Americans don't read anymore" articles--like this melancholy peice in The New Yorker on "Twilight of the Books."
It's not because I'm, like, against reading. I will indiginantly point to overlooked fiction writers and poets with the best of them. ("These people deserve your attention!" I bellow into the sunset).
What I take issue with is stuff like this:
"The results, first reported by the N.E.A. in 2004, are dispiriting. In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, 'To Read or Not to Read,' which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, 'Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.'”
Now, I don't question the accuracy of the above paragraph. But I think it misses the point entirely. The urgency it inspires is of duty, not of excitement--exactly the wrong way to promote reading. The N.E.A. and New Yorker article make people feel bad because they *should* be reading more, because reading is good for you, like Vitamin C.
When I hear friends abashedly admit to not having read many novels lately, or when I hear myself sound anxious about not having polished off the Annotated Literary Canon, I bristle. I don't want to read a book because it is my duty; I want to read a book because it is fun. I read because I discover and laugh and learn and imagine. I empathize and stir in inspiration.
It is an entirely different feeling than when I pick up a title because I feel it is the duty of a young literate lass like myself. Why else did I trudge through The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, long after I'd stopped taking pleasure in it? Because it had a Pulitzer Prize sticker on it! Because cool people loved it! And I felt as if I should, too.
Well, I didn't. I stopped about 200 pages from the end, and I've never looked back. There's so much out there that I authentically want to read, I simply don't have time to read for duty.
And methinks that if the N.E.A. and New Yorker want to see reading catch on fast and certain in the U.S., scaring citizens with language that basically implies that their lives aren't worth much without Shakespeare is not the way to go about it.
While I too would like to see literary culture flourish more (note "Save the Book Reviews" button in the sidebar), I feel that us readers and writers have an enormous amount to celebrate: there is more wonderful writing out there than we'll ever finish in a lifetime--how heartening to think that we'll always have something to look forward to! Literacy is no longer the property of the rich--how much more vibrant our generation is!
And, gosh darn it, nobody is going to read the last great book I read (Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma) as a favor to me or because I guilted them into it; they will read it because excitment is contagious ("Check this out...")