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Literary Reading in Decline


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#61 NBooth

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Posted 30 April 2014 - 09:17 AM



Mr. Hamm and Mr. Booth or anyone else interested,

 

Have you read An Experiment in Criticism?  It's a slightly more rigorous (and shorter) form of the argument in Alan Jacobs' The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, namely, that the main purpose of reading is to give the reader joy and pleasure.

 

But, assuming that we live in a world with an objective reality, there are still objective standards that relate even to pleasure.  Lewis turns the critic's argument about literary books and nonliterary books on its head.  Instead, for the sake of the experiment/argument, he suggests that there are literary readers and nonliterary readers (not that the same reader can't do both kinds of reading).  The above quote of Lewis that I referred to earlier is a necessary presupposition to his argument (i.e., that being a literary or nonliterary reader says nothing about one's moral character or value as a person).

 

The first argument in the book that Lewis makes (that there is, in fact, a difference between literary reading and nonliterary reading) is, as far as I can tell, both logically unassailable and useful.  There are, of course, further arguments that follow directly on point to this entire thread.

 

It's on my list, but I've got about a hundred WWII-era-and-after books [and criticism thereof] ahead of it. The distinction reminds me of Thomas Roberts' An Aesthetics of Junk Fictionwhich makes a couple of suppositions: [a] that there is a difference between "literary" and "non-literary" reading, [b] that most people do both, and [c] that the aesthetics of "non-literary" reading partake of the aesthetics of the scholar when s/he reads criticism. Also, [d] that one isn't more valuable than the other--they serve different ends and shouldn't be evaluated comparatively.

 

Which is to say, I agree that there's a difference between "literary" and "non-literary" reading, and the distinction quite usefully shifts attention onto the activity of reading, rather than the object read. I can get behind that.

 

[It also throws a twist into the topic of this thread: the problem ceases to be whether people are reading literature--whatever that is--but whether they are literary readers. Of course, [a] such a proposition is difficult to prove one way or the other, and [b] the likelihood is high that, even in eras with high literacy, the number of folks who were "literary readers" is probably very small. Most people just don't care, and have never cared, about reading in the way literature people care about it. And that makes worrying about the "decline" of literary reading a bit puzzling]


Edited by NBooth, 30 April 2014 - 09:35 AM.


#62 Josh Hamm

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Posted 02 May 2014 - 12:37 AM

An Experiment in Criticism is on my list as well, but I too have hundreds of books lying around that I need to read. I hope to get around to it soon, when I have the time. 

 

And, for what it's worth, I agree with the point about literary readers. 



#63 NBooth

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Posted 02 May 2014 - 12:14 PM

Will Self declares the death of the novel.

The populist Gutenbergers prate on about how digital texts linked to social media will allow readers to take part in a public conversation. What none of the Gutenbergers are able to countenance, because it is quite literally – for once the intensifier is justified – out of their minds, is that the advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself. 

 

 

 

Scott Esposito makes the obvious rejoinder:

 

I hereby propose a variant of Godwin’s law, wherein if you start out an argument about how a certain art form you cherish is dying by comparing its (obvious, inevitable) decline to how technology killed the music industry, you immediately lose. (Also: musicians are doing just fine and are coping well with technology.)

 

 

Unsurprisingly, I'm more convinced by Esposito's snark than by Self's mournful lay.



#64 NBooth

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Posted 06 May 2014 - 06:05 PM

Two things:

 

First, the top ten favorite books in America [via Criminal Element]:

 

1) The Bible 
 
2) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
 
3) Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
 
4) The Lord of the Rings (series) by J.R.R. Tolkien
 
5) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
 
6) Moby Dick by Herman Melville
 
7) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
 
8) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 
 
9) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 
 
10) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
 
Second, as far as the literature/not literature thing goes, at 1/3 of the way in, I'm convinced that Beneath the American Renaissance is essential reading. The author, David S. Reynolds, still holds to a distinction between "literary" and "nonliterary" effects, and [insert my own grumbles here] but what the book does--and pretty effectively, I think--is demonstrate that, to crib a phrase from Bruno Latour, we Americans have never been literary. He also helpfully highlights the ways in which the major authors of the period are indebted to popular fiction of the day.


#65 Rushmore

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Posted 07 May 2014 - 02:18 PM

The item that most surprises me on that list is Gone With the Wind. I know it was enormously popular in its day, but I didn't realize it was still widely read.



#66 NBooth

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Posted 07 May 2014 - 02:27 PM

The item that most surprises me on that list is Gone With the Wind. I know it was enormously popular in its day, but I didn't realize it was still widely read.

 

Well, it's still widely praised, at least. ;).

 

Honestly, there's a huge cult--still--centered around the movie, so I can see it bleed over into appreciation for the book. [Delighted to see Atlas Shrugged exit the list, in any event]



#67 NBooth

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Posted 12 May 2014 - 08:26 PM

Cue the tut-tutting: it looks like teens are watching tv and surfing the internet instead of reading books.

 

Nearly half of 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure no more than one or two times a year — if that.
 
That's way down from a decade ago.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
The sky is always-already falling. 


#68 Josh Hamm

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Posted 13 May 2014 - 10:08 PM

Huh. The thing that jumped out at me when I read the top ten books in America list: they're all also popular movies. Especially number 2, 3, and 4 - they're each some of the highest grossing movies of all time. I know that both Harry Potter and LotR book sales increased, especially for LotR (no links, but five seconds of googling should corroborate it). I think it's great that both mediums can be mutually beneficial. The books aren't diminished by the movies, but in some cases are read more widely because of it. I wonder if the film versions of the other books that appear on the list had a significant impact on their popularity as well...

 

On the subject of declining reading and tut-tutting: I'm sad to see people forgo reading because I've found so much joy and meaning in literature. I can't help but think that these teens who don't read for pleasure are missing out. Also, just because people have been complaining of the same thing over the years doesn't mean the complaint isn't valid. Maybe the sky is always-already falling, and we keep failing to recognize it as such (this is meant to be slightly tongue in cheek, but also slightly serious at the same time).



#69 NBooth

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Posted 14 May 2014 - 08:42 AM

Well, I'm a bit tongue-in-cheek as well; I certainly don't have the training to argue with the raw data (statistically, it does seem that kids read less, though you've got to carefully define "read"). But I'm slightly serious, too: the constant drum-beat that "no-one reads anymore" has been going on for the entirety of my own comparatively-short life, with the parallel whinge that, if kids do read, they don't read the right kinds of things (Fredric Wertham, for instance, in his famous diatribe against comic books). It goes hand in hand with the idea that "kids these days" are (take your pick) lazy, entitled, obnoxious, disrespectful, lewd, loose, etc etc etc. 

 

Which means that, whatever the data, there's a tendency to hysterical over-reaction whenever these stories come up--an over-reaction that isn't, I think, warranted. The kids are alright. 



#70 NBooth

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Posted 18 May 2014 - 02:02 PM

This is one of the best argument in favor of "literary" reading that I've ever encountered.

 

“Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that advocates free speech. “It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.”