February 16, 2009

Harry Potter and the End of Literacy

Print More

Yesterday The Washington Post printed the last edition of its eminent Book World, the weekly insert that stood as one of the country’s best book reviews. The story is what we’ve come to expect from print media today: plummeting subscription, faltering ad revenue, disappearing profits. Considered alongside the recent deaths of the Los Angeles Times’ and Chicago Tribune’s print book reviews, this seems to be the death knell for the form.
Of course, the problem evidenced by the severe curtailing of newspaper book reviewing is far larger than the loss of a few dozen weekly pages on contemporary literature. For the past few decades, humanists have been bemoaning the increasing lack of patience in our country for anything long or difficult, and books have obviously been the first to fall. An acquaintance with literature, if not a thorough familiarity with it, was once regarded as a requirement for anyone educated or successful; today, it is seen as unimportant or even frivolous.
The odd thing about this decline in general literacy is that people are probably reading more than ever. Beyond the obvious ramifications of a much more highly educated populace, the rise of the Internet has upped the amount of time a person spends reading every day. But they’re not reading Sophocles, to be sure: it’s likely that blog posts and Wikipedia, despite the fact that they put more text before more eyes, have actually hurt our cultural sensibilities. Readers accustomed to short Perez Hilton paragraphs have difficulty turning to, say, the long-winded eloquence of Faulkner, and so the good stuff gets pushed aside.
It’s not even that books have been abandoned altogether. In fact, there have been some astonishing literary phenomena in recent years that probably represent the largest shared experiences of reading in history. The obvious example is the Harry Potter series, which has sold over 400 million copies in 67 languages. More recently, the Twilight books have gotten a boost from the related movie and are now seen in every teenage girl’s hands. And the seemingly unending hubbub over faux-memoirs and the accountability of authors would seem to suggest that people still care deeply about literature.
But the literature under consideration is of a deeply impoverished sort. Harry Potter and Twilight are good for a quick thrill and an occasional, broad-stroked lesson, but there’s no comparison to true art. At the risk of sounding too high-brow (and my hesitation indicates the extent to which cultural elitism has been discredited), the majority of what people read today is schlock. There’s something to be said for the pleasure of reading Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, I suppose, but their prevalence pushes aside the great authors.
It wasn’t always so. Consider this stunning sentence from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity: “When Tennyson retired to his study after breakfast to get on with the Idylls there had to be a hush in the house because every middle-class household would expect to buy his next publication.” Imagine that — a challenging work of poetry purchased by every middle-class household. The equivalent today might be a copy of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow on every nightstand, which is an absurd idea. Literature, it seems, has fallen by the wayside.
The one exception to the general indifference to classic literature seems to be Oprah’s Book Club, which is widely hailed as the savior of good books. Titles from As I Lay Dying to Anna Karenina have been featured, and housewives across the country have dutifully perused their pages. The sales figures that Oprah’s gaze inspires are stunning, but do they really indicate an engagement with the work? Certainly, for some people, Oprah opens up new doors to literature and leads them where they might otherwise never have ventured. Still, it’s doubtful that these cursory discussions, which tend to focus on character interaction and shy away from questions of form or style, do much to help the cause of literature. In a review in The Guardian of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections — a book that Oprah planned to feature but was cut from the list after the author expressed hesitation — the critic James Wood took up this question: “Franzen was right to identify commercial forces such as Winfrey for what they are — forces that may actually be antithetical to literature, for all that they come dressed as literature’s helpmeet. Winfrey’s “book club” after all, has made a great contribution to American literacy, but has very little to do with American literature.”
And so we find ourselves in a cultural desert. People read, but they don’t read what’s valuable; or they read what’s valuable, but they just skim the surface. In what is either an indignant protest or an attempt at compensation, our best writers produce long, complex tomes like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. And now, there’s barely even a place left to complain about it: book reviews have been sequestered to the Web, which, quite clearly, is not the ideal place for patient, reasoned criticism.
My proposed solution? Censor the classics. After all, nothing gets people as excited as what they can’t have.