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Literary Reading in Decline


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#21 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 13 March 2011 - 11:42 AM

Judging from the number of Americans who read voluntarily and/or for pleasure, some professors somewhere are not doing their job.

I don't know. I think the "germ" for reading is often planted much, much earlier.

Raising your kids to love reading may be the most important factor for people in a majority of cases. It's what I was lucky enough to be instilled with by my parents, so a couple bad literature professors later, the early work done by trips to the libraries, bookstores, and birthday/Christmas presents of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes and N.C. Wyeth illustrated Scribner's classics had already done the job.

Sandra Stotsky has also written an interesting study on what our kids will be assigned to read in high school.

#22 Jason Panella

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Posted 13 March 2011 - 05:53 PM

I've always been a reader, but up through high school, I mainly read licensed science fiction: the Stars Wars expanded universe novels, as well as a lot of Shadowrun and BattleTech novels (which, in hindsight, some of them were actually really good books). It wasn't until I read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 that I actually started reading more devotedly.

It helped that my writing degree overlapped greatly with my college's English lit program, so my assigned reading list was fantastic. Stuff I read and loved: Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a whole bunch of Emily Dickinson, Hemingway's A Movable Feast, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a smattering of Flannery O'Connor's work, James Joyce's The Dubliners (on which I did my senior seminar).

#23 Nathaniel

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 12:35 PM

If you start out reading Tolkien or Lewis, as many young readers do, you may well find yourself moving on to Charles Williams, the most intense and eccentric of the Inklings.

I was actually introduced to Williams in an academic setting. We read ALL HALLOWS EVE. And boy, oh boy, did I hate it.

I can't seem to get enough of Williams. His writing can be fussy and obscure, but his vision is so compelling I always come away with a sense of wonderment.

Whoa. How did I forget about Harold Bloom? I remember loving every single thing of his that I read. It's high time I started collecting his works in some of those nice hardback copies that they're bound in. Thanks for the reminder.

He wrote a novel, you know. It's out of print. It's a gnostic sci-fi novel called THE FLIGHT TO LUCIFER. I found it at a used book sale in a nearby library and snatched it up as soon as it became clear that the Harold Bloom cited on the cover was the same one who did all that literary criticism.

My advice is don't waste your time. You'd be much better off reading David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus.

#24 Ryan H.

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 01:26 PM

I can't seem to get enough of Williams. His writing can be fussy and obscure, but his vision is so compelling I always come away with a sense of wonderment.

I couldn't get beyond the ineptness of his storytelling. There were some interesting ideas at play there, admittedly, but the reading experience itself bored me to tears. Same thing with Frank Herbert and DUNE.

My advice is don't waste your time. You'd be much better off reading David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus.

Oh, I have no doubt that Bloom's book is horrid. But I'm reading it just 'cause. (Though when I'll actually get to it, lord knows. I have plenty of books I haven't read yet, and I suspect I'll get to them before I get to Bloom's venture into fiction.)

#25 Nathaniel

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 04:58 PM

I can't seem to get enough of Williams. His writing can be fussy and obscure, but his vision is so compelling I always come away with a sense of wonderment.

I couldn't get beyond the ineptness of his storytelling. There were some interesting ideas at play there, admittedly, but the reading experience itself bored me to tears.

At least we have this in common: Charles Williams makes us both cry. ;)

#26 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 11 January 2012 - 09:41 PM

Jenny Diski, "Short Cuts," from the London Review of Books -

... The state of publishing – in particular of the kind of fiction which is politely called ‘literary’, meaning not ‘easy reading’ as in ‘easy listening’, or necessarily story-led, not bestselling before it is published – is dire. I understand that as financial concerns publishers are supposed to make a profit. Further assumptions mysteriously follow this one. I’ve been told quite often, by readers and literature students and some writers, that if a book sells well, it is by definition good. Until recently, there was another model: literary fiction was subsidised by blockbusters. Independent publishers took on writers they knew wouldn’t sell in large quantities because they thought their books ought to be read. They made their money out of the big hitters and felt good about publishing the other stuff. There was a very short period in the 1980s and 1990s when ‘literary’ fiction thrived thanks to the arrival of Waterstone’s, which treated literary fiction like popular fiction, piled it high and sold it in large enough numbers to enable writers to pay their gas bills. Then global businesses started buying up independent publishers, the net book agreement was ditched, and the word was ‘market’ – or ‘supermarket’. Editors might admire a fine book, but are overridden by marketing and accounting departments who now have the final say. I know of a novel that wasn’t accepted by one publisher after the manuscript was first submitted to W.H. Smith, who said that it wouldn’t sell enough.

Deborah Levy has recently had a new novel out, good enough to make you want to read it again as soon as you’ve finished it. Numerous mainstream publishers decided not to take it on because, as she explained, ‘the fear among those who admired it was that Swimming Home was too literary to prosper in a tough economy … to be fair, there was quite a bit of agonising, but in the end Marketing and Sales won the argument.’ One mainstream publisher offered to publish it, but proposed edits designed to improve its market appeal. She decided against it ...


Edited by Persiflage, 11 January 2012 - 09:42 PM.


#27 NBooth

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Posted 15 March 2012 - 11:13 AM

This could probably fit in any one of the meta-reading threads we have floating around (it touches on themes we discuss in the thread on the American Novel), but I'll put it here for now.

The Millions: "Clean Bill of Health: The Novel's Myriad Roads to Recovery"

Now that we’re a couple years into the new decade, it’s revealing to glance over our shoulders at the 2000s and see so much hand wringing about the health of literature. Sure, the State of Writing is an evergreen topic, and with all the political, cultural, and technological disruption at the turn of the millennium, folks had good reason to be nervous. Yet in retrospect, it’s disturbing to read so many famous writers in famous venues anxiously gerrymandering the literary map, roughly along the lines of Traditional Literature versus so-called Experimental Writing.

[snip]

Now I’m neither a doctor nor an esteemed literary critic, but it seems that either the literary culture has made a miraculous recovery, or it wasn’t that sick in the first place. Which is to say that when those famous writers were so certain the patient was ailing, perhaps they were looking at the wrong patient. Lately it seems like whether you write unconventional novels or straight-laced novels or novels replete with vampires and weremonkeys, there are more ways than ever before to get your work out to readers. And not just on Lulu, iUniverse or Blogger.


Edited by NBooth, 15 March 2012 - 11:35 AM.


#28 NBooth

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Posted 18 March 2012 - 02:29 PM

Relatedly, here's an article on the virtues of literature: The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction:

Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.


[Insert: quibbles about the reductionist nature of modern neuroscience, etc etc etc]

Edited by NBooth, 18 March 2012 - 02:30 PM.


#29 NBooth

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Posted 22 October 2012 - 07:31 AM

The Millions: Literary Fiction is a Genre


In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read [Molly] Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.



#30 Jason Panella

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Posted 22 October 2012 - 09:15 AM

The Millions: Literary Fiction is a Genre


This is wonderful. Thanks for posting!

#31 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 23 October 2012 - 12:12 PM

NPR: America's Facebook Generation Is Reading Strong:

In what may come as a pleasant surprise to people who fear the Facebook generation has given up on reading — or, at least, reading anything longer than 140 characters — a new report from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project reveals the prominent role of books, libraries and technology in the lives of young readers, ages 16 to 29 ...

"We found that about 8 in 10 Americans under the age of 30 have read a book in the past year. And that's compared to about 7 in 10 adults in general, American adults. So, they're reading — they're more likely to read, and they're also a little more likely to be using their library."


Edited by J.A.A. Purves, 23 October 2012 - 12:13 PM.


#32 Tyler

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Posted 23 October 2012 - 01:10 PM

Reading one book in a year now qualifies you as a reader?

#33 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 23 October 2012 - 02:56 PM

Reading one book in a year now qualifies you as a reader?

According to NPR's assessment of the Pew Research Center's report, yes. No questions about it. No elaboration. No raised eyebrows. No jokes. No attempt at either satire or irony. Not even any disbelief. This report is completely serious.

#34 NBooth

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Posted 23 October 2012 - 04:40 PM


Reading one book in a year now qualifies you as a reader?

According to NPR's assessment of the Pew Research Center's report, yes. No questions about it. No elaboration. No raised eyebrows. No jokes. No attempt at either satire or irony. Not even any disbelief. This report is completely serious.


Considering how many other ways people read, it seems fair enough. And, besides, "one book" is pretty clearly a bare minimum, and I find it hard to believe that the repeated library use reported, etc etc etc, can be attributable to one book a person a year. Perhaps I'm wrong, though.

FWIW, Digging around Statistica, it seems like, on average, most people (20%) read 3-5 books in the past three years; 19% read 1-2; so it's been pretty stable for the past three years, at any rate. And I would honestly be surprised to see a wide variation over a larger span. This graph would seem to bear the assertion out. Between 1978 and 2011, the lion's share of USians have read between 1-5 books a year (indeed, as of 2011 it sat at 32%, about the same number it was in 1990). All the other numbers have remained similarly consistent. The sub-heading notes that "in broad strokes" fewer people are "reading"--presumably implying that only book-reading is "real" reading, but the general picture remains the same. And I honestly wouldn't expect much difference if you extended the surveys backward in time. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if you discovered that book-reading--indeed, literacy--drops dramatically in the pre-War years, particularly in the South. That's a guess on my part, though.

(I hope those links work; if not, I'll try to find a work-around).

Of course, this says nothing of so-called "literary" reading; I suspect most of the FB generation read The Hunger Games, not Joyce.

Edited by NBooth, 23 October 2012 - 04:44 PM.


#35 Tyler

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Posted 23 October 2012 - 10:21 PM

read The Hunger Games, not Joyce.


Or the Hunger Games Joyce fan fiction, where Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Buck Mulligan fight it out on Finnegan's hallucinatory dreamscape.

#36 NBooth

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Posted 24 October 2012 - 07:06 AM


read The Hunger Games, not Joyce.


Or the Hunger Games Joyce fan fiction, where Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Buck Mulligan fight it out on Finnegan's hallucinatory dreamscape.


Sign me up.

#37 Pierrot

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Posted 09 December 2012 - 08:35 PM

So, even though this generation hasn't lost completely the ability to read a book we can all agree that they (most of the time) only read bad literature.

But, I don't think the problem here is that the books they read are only pop and/or bad stuff (though that doesn't help), the reason why I think they are so damaging is that the readers of those books create a affinity with those specific works but not of reading. Lots of people read those books and never read another book again. There is no logical progression from, I don't know, Twilight to any other kind of reading.

An interesting (unscientific) research would be to grab a bunch of random people to see if are they better able to tolerate an entire football game with teams they don't know, or a novel written by an unknown.

#38 Christian

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Posted 09 December 2012 - 09:50 PM

Lots of people read those books and never read another book again. There is no logical progression from, I don't know, Twilight to any other kind of reading.

I believe Alan Jacobs raises this very concern vis-a-vis the Harry Potter series in his The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, but Google isn't helping me find the passage in question.

#39 NBooth

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Posted 30 December 2012 - 11:00 AM

Tim O'Reilly on the future of books:

Things like paper maps and atlases are just gone. Online dictionaries and online encyclopedias have killed printed dictionaries and encyclopedias. I collect how-to books of various kinds just because I want to have them. And certainly if there were a major disaster, a book could be a useful thing to have. But I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.


Nicholas Carr offers a one-paragraph rebuttal of this one-paragraph assertion:

This is so foolish and confused, so callous. It takes a remarkable degree of critical vacuity to suggest that because an art form is “relatively recent,” it lacks worth — that because the novel is “only a 200-year-old [sic] construct,” it’s somehow suspect, and disposable. And how sad and shallow to view the reading (or writing) of a book like Moby Dick as an exercise in elitism. It’s the antithesis of elitism.



#40 Christian

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Posted 30 December 2012 - 02:20 PM

Thanks for pointing me to Carr's blog, which I've somehow missed in the months/years since I read and enjoyed The Shallows. Looking over Carr's recent posts, I see this:

The old, weird world


This is the best lead to a story I’ve read in a while:


Fifteen years after vultures disappeared from Mumbai’s skies, the Parsi community here intends to build two aviaries at one of its most sacred sites so that the giant scavengers can once again devour human corpses.


That doesn't appear to be related to this thread, but I thought others might enjoy reading it.

Edited by Christian, 30 December 2012 - 02:20 PM.