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.
If you haven’t read it, go out now and purchase the new issue of Harpers magazine. Ursula K. Le Guin has the most perspicacious (not to mention a bit angry) essay on the state of reading, and the book, and the social bonding capacity of books, and their capacity to house cultural information and memory, and how capitalism applied to publishing in extreme undermines the very function of books: a commonwealth experience, rather than one of personal profit or self-interest.
A favorite passage:
Besides, readers aren’t viewers; they recognize their pleasure as different from that of being entertained. Once you’ve pressed the ON button, the TV goes on, and on, and on, and all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness–not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering. In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can’t lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head. A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won’t do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it–everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not “interactive” with a set of rules or options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.
I came across this poem in the comments section of Justine Larbalestier’s blog, posted there by Chris McClaren, and had to steal it to post over here as well. It’s just too good, and sums up my feelings in recent years about how we should teach our children and ourselves to look at the world.
TELLING LIES TO THE YOUNG IS WRONG
Telling lies to the young is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them that God’s in his heaven
and all’s well with the world is wrong.
The young know what you mean. The young are people.
Tell them the difficulties can’t be counted
and let them see not only what will be
but see with clarity these present times
Say obstacles exist they must encounter,
sorrow happens, hardship happens.
The hell with it. Who never knew
the price of happiness will not be happy.
Forgive no error you recognize,
it will repeat itself, increase,
and afterwards our pupils
will not forgive in us what we forgave.
Gwyneth Jones is so smart:
Much of the science-fiction establishment hated the cyberpunks. Science fiction was supposed to be about progress, and how advances in technology will inevitably create a better world. But they were right, and the truth they told is highly relevant to this new century of sci-fi come true. If a child is told at the age of five that he has the cognitive scan of a delinquent, there’s a very strong chance that he’ll fulfil that prediction, especially if he continues to be singled out. Our gadgets are just like our children. They have the potential to be marvellous, to surpass all expectations. But children (and robots) don’t grow up intelligent, affectionate, helpful and good-willed all by themselves. They need to be nurtured. The technology, however fantastic, is neutral. It’s up to us to decide whether that dazzling new robot brain powers a caring hand, or a speedy fist highly accurate at throwing grenades.
I love interesting statistics like the one in this video from Youtube, which as been making the rounds among blogs and sites concerned with economic development lately. I feel like I should be watching Braveheart or something when I watch it, but you’ll get the point. We’re, uh…a little behind, I think. The world’s moving faster than we are maybe.
Did you know?
I love this kid. Let us have more people with his courage.
Let us have less people like the censoring, word-phobic, body-phobic school librarians mentioned in this article. The ones that haven’t been quoted out of context, that is. (Thanks, Gwenda). 😉
And read Scott Westerfeld’s response to it as well.