More on Americans and reading

Okay, one more entry before I head out for the weekend.  This one is a review by Laura Miller on a book called The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby.  It seems to be related to the ideas Ursula Le Guin addresses in her essay “Staying Awake” in the most current issue of Harpers.  I like this excerpt of Miller’s review of the book, which points out some of the weaknesses of Jacoby’s (and probably Le Guin’s) examples they sometimes use to illustrate points that have actual substance, which undermines their ability to persuade some people to see what they are seeing (like David points out about his reaction to the excerpt of Le Guin’s essay I posted the other day).  Miller:

I don’t entirely disagree with Jacoby on many of these points. As a literary critic, I too worry about the dwindling numbers of Americans who read for pleasure. Furthermore, like Jacoby (and Caleb Crain, in a recent New Yorker article about the prospect of a “post-literate” America), I believe that reading fosters a particular mental stamina, discipline, creativity and flexibility that can’t be acquired from other media. In a future dominated by complex social systems, technology and science, only people who can think in this fashion will have enough understanding of how the world works to actually run it. And to remain truly democratic, America should be made up of citizens who are able to think that way.

Nevertheless, Jacoby has a hard time separating her legitimate worries about America’s eroding attention span from simple disagreements of taste and generational preferences. She dismisses certain forms of popular art out of hand, automatically presuming that her readers will agree. But I, for one, see no reason why newspaper articles on “the newest trends in hip-hop” should be written off as no more than craven pandering to distractible young readers; the subject is interesting, and worthy, in its own right. I might not equate Bob Dylan with Milton, as some overzealous rock critics have apparently done, but I’m also aware that the pop fluff of one era (the operas of Puccini, for example) often becomes the classical repertoire of the next. When Jacoby hauls out that old, shopworn story about crowds gathering at the docks to grab the latest installment of a Dickens novel, she’s not accounting for the fact that Dickens had about the same artistic status in his day as the creators of “The Sopranos” have in ours — and I’m not sure that the Dickens novel in question (“The Old Curiosity Shop”) emerges as the better work in the comparison.

Le Guin uses the story of crowds gathering at the docks for the latest installment of a Dickens novel too.  It’s a good story, but I think Miller has a good point on its weakness as an example because it’s both shopworn and also doesn’t fully examine or contextualize the example.  In any case, I’m glad people are talking about these things, and trying to define what it is that reading does that other forms of engagement and entertainment do not, and what reading, too, does not do.

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