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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

On books and book reviews

I read Goodbye to All That (The decline of the coverage of books isn't new, benign, or necessary) by Steve Wasserman and although it is a long article, Wasserman makes some points that hit home with me:

Obsessive devotion to the written word is rare. Acquiring the knowledge and technique to do it well is arduous. Serious readers are a peculiar breed. Elizabeth Hardwick, for one, has always known this. “Perhaps the love of, or the intense need for, reading is psychological, an eccentricity, even something like a neurosis, that is, a pattern of behavior that persists beyond its usefulness, which is controlled by inner forces and which in turn controls.” For this kind of reading is a profoundly antisocial act: it cannot be done in concert with friends; it is not a branch of the leisure industry, whose entertainments, whether video or computer or sports or rock ’n’ roll, can be enjoyed in the mass. How many times, for instance, did you ever say as a child: “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m reading?”
There is certainly some truth in that. "Obsessive devotion" to reading is so solitary as to frequently move into the antisocial category, don't you think? Are serious readers a "peculiar breed"? Mmmm...yeah.

As Wasserman quotes statistics and worries that we "totter on the edge of an abyss of profound cultural neglect", he pauses and reflects:

But perhaps this is too bleak a view. After all, 96 million readers is a third of the country. As John Maxwell Hamilton, a longtime journalist and commentator on Public Radio International’s Marketplace, writes in his irreverent and trenchant book, Casanova Was a Book Lover, “People who care about books care profoundly. What they lack in numbers they make up for in passion [emphasis mine]. A typical mid-1980s study illustrates the fidelity of readers to reading. Only half of the American public, the study found, had read at least one book in the past six months. Of those ‘readers,’ however, almost one-third devoured at least one book a week.”
I love that thought--that we "care profoundly" about books and though we may be few in numbers serious readers are passionate about books.

And I agree with Wasserman that:

...It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring.

Readers know that. They know in their bones something newspapers forget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs. I shall never forget overhearing some years ago, on the morning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a woman asking a UCLA police officer if he expected trouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, “Ma’am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs.” There was more wisdom in that cop’s remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal justice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies since time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books. 

Sometimes we really do forget how important books and reading are to our way of life. They are the means by which we transmit much of our culture, social beliefs, religion, technology, tradition..

And this article on literacy...
I've finished my first book for the RIP Challenge and will review it soon.


  1. I'm not sure. All obsessive readers I know are very social and love to talk about what they are reading, books that are of common interest, etc. The act itself, sure, can be dubbed antisocial, but then isn't every single thing one is doing that requires some degree of focus while it is being done? I'm not disagreeing, per se, I just don't see things as doom and gloom regarding reading as some do.

  2. Carl -- I take it to mean that the act itself is antisocial (as you mention), not that the reader is always antisocial. I guess because when I am wrapped up with a really good book, I resent interruptions. Also, I suppose, that unlike many activities, you can't share the activity itself as you can share watching a movie. When you are actually reading, it is simply you and the book. However, the sharing afterwards is, I agree completely, an important part of the pleasure.

    One reason I made sure to put "obsessive" in quotes is that not all my reading is obsessive. Many books, I can put down easily and return to with pleasure; others, I will put everything else on hold for.

    What I liked is that Wasserman says that those who are "serious readers" care deeply about reading. Your opinion that all is not doom and gloom is, I think, proven by the number of friends we have found online that share our passion for reading and sharing.

    I suspect this has always been the case...a small percentage of people read most of the books. The darned article was so long that I just left out what was probably Wasserman's main point--that newspapers have been dropping their book reviews. Even that isn't so much of a problem because so many people have switched their source of learning about books to blogs and online reviews.

    This kind of thing is scary, though.

  3. I dunno...I always got a lot of..."why don't you go outside and stop reading", from my parents when I was younger. Nothing like reading on the back porch because you're locked out to get some fresh air.

    It's strange how readers are born to non-readers, and then it skips., and the article are right. A small percentage read. But WHAT we read, and how, and how the Barnes and Nobles and little independents.

    The world is smaller because of the net, and the time when we couldn't connect with others like ourselves is...thank God, over. But what the--? I stumbled on a blog-link to here by mistake and there is a whole sub-group doing..what is it you guys are doing??

  4. jodi - Seems as if you may have fallen down the rabbit-hole and ended up here.

    :0 Not only do we drive the big chains, amazon, and the independents, but we exchange books among ourselves.

    Is it time for tea? Are we late? We must put our books aside...there is a cake with currants and a bottle with a label.

  5. Thanks for sharing!

    I wouldn't call reading "profoundly antisocial," however. I think it's the adverb that's bothering me. In middle school, my best friend was an avid reader as well, and we would have reading sleepovers (my little sister thought we were crazy). Now, my mom and I will sit on the couch or in one of our beds, reading side by side. We're not talking, but we're still enjoying being with each other.

    Also, I can't believe that someone would call computer games not anti-social and reading profoundly such. I'll have to go read the whole article, because that just doesn't make sense to me!

  6. Eva -- I don't think Hardwick was saying that all reading is antisocial, but that "obsessive" reading can be.

    :) Of course, two readers can enjoy each other's company while reading. Thinking about your friend and your mother as reading companions makes me smile. My youngest daughter used to bring her book and get in my bed if I was reading because she wanted to "freed" with me. It increased my enjoyment.

    But I do have obsessive reading cycles...and that is all I want to do. My parents worried about these phases, my husband sometimes resents them.

    I agree that computer games can be intensely antisocial. In many ways the computer can isolate you in a virtual world. Like reading, I suppose, it can be entertainment or obsession.

    It's funny, since I know that I can become antisocial at times, preferring books to people, I recognized what Hardwick (as quoted by Wasserman) was saying about obsessive reading as true. Obviously, it isn't always true, not even for me. :)

  7. I think it's true that we don't have to get panicky that not everybody loves to read -- we probably have more readers now than ever before in history, and that's enough to sustain a reading culture. I'm not terribly pessimistic about it.

  8. dorothy -- While I wish that everyone could share the pleasure that reading brings, I agree that it is no reason to panic if they aren't as devoted to reading as some. It is only online that I've discovered that segment of the population who love reading as I do, but I love my friends who are not compulsive readers. We share other interests, some of which the same deep and abiding pleasures that reading does.

    Online, I share the pleasures of quilting, crafting, sewing, and gardening with others. In real life, I share the pleasures of these things and more with other friends.

    Not all readers are couch potatoes, are they, Dorothy? Some are committed to yoga, tai chi, gardening, sewing, and ... bicycle marathons!

  9. Interesting article and I'm glad you shared, Jenclair. You've received some thoughtful comments, too. I like a good discussion.

    I'm going to vere to the point in the article that discusses the need to teach our children to read. "...without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs." That is something I've known in my bones, but I liked having someone put that feeling into words.

    I agree with you that it is very scary when the children of today cannot read well enough to enjoy reading the classics. As I teach, I am frightened regularly concerning the backtracking teachers are forced to do because students are not paying attention, and just NOT learning. I have been working with my high school students for 2 weeks at the beginning of class to recognize the subject and verb of a sentence. Today's sentence was a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph of some enthusiasm." Not one student could tell me the subject or the verb. This was the hardest sentence so far, but good grief, we've been doing this for 2 weeks! I only had 4 students there today and it is a study skills class, but even then, they are in high school. Lest, you think they are vastly different than the majority of students, let me inform you, they are not. The few are the ones who can and do read the classics.

    Okay, after that rather pessimistic
    tirade, I still feel optimistic about reading. I have an 18-yr-old that reads and that gives me hope.

  10. I just returned from a publishing conference where the conversation turned a great deal on whether the activity of reading was in fact the most effective way of absorbing knowledge. Might there be other formats for presenting content that would be more successful for those individuals who are not text-based learners? Those of us who love to read tend to be successful text-based learners but not all human beings learn in the same way.

    I'm currently reading Faint Praise by Gail Pool and hope to post a review of that title which might bring forward some other interesting thoughts.

  11. Cheya -- It has become an interesting discussion! I've had to reconsider a few things because initially, my thoughts were on my own tendencies in reading...and even those are not consistent.

    The quote you used (aside from the problems of finding subject and verb) is wonderful. Did they understand the meaning? I used to put quotes on the board and many of my best students would cry, "I don't understand!" They could, of course, if they tried, but they wanted an instant clarification, not to have to work it out for themselves.

    Maybe that is where the problem lies. Many people, both students and adults, don't want to have to puzzle through things on their own. The writing in many classics involves long, complicated sentences that require some practice in getting used to. They prefer a Hemingway style.

    But (and I admit that I had some above average, no, excellent students) many loved the classics and loved proving their abilities.

    However, I've also taught lower level students who could have done more, but refused the challenge. Almost in a reverse kind of snobbery, they refused even books that were of excellent quality, but simply written.

    I think teachers should use student reading blogs! That might get their interest.

    Jill -- You are exactly right that not all individuals learn in the same way; reading may be a necessary skill, but not always the best learning tool for everyone.

    Employing other methods even in English classes can pay off and encourage reading as well. Class discussion (auditory), writing (kinesthetic), projects (appealing to creative talents), illustrations, connections to their own lives, etc. can be helpful to those who are less oriented to text.

    Just checked a review for Faint Praise and added it to my wish list!

  12. Ha! I never knew the kind of behavior I've demonstrated over the years is known as obsessive. Reading has been one of my few hobbies and past-times. I have always wished to be left alone when I'm reading. It's an intimate time to connect with the author and what he/she has meant to convey in words. I enjoy, value, and cherish the time of reading and am very repulsive to any unnecessary (sometimes necessary) interruptions!

    Reading simply opens my mind to interval of time that is eternally lost, to places that I otherwise have no mean to be, and to social/cultural experiences that are utterly foreign.

    I'll have no problem discussing with others what I'm reading, except very rarely you would find serious listener who would appreciate the depth of the reading I engage in.

  13. Matt -- :) Obsessive is relative, isn't it? You are right, finding someone to a listen is a problem in real life...which is why the internet reading community becomes so important.