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January 1, 2008

The Prestige of Exclusivity

Filed under: Criticism,Writing — litlove @ 12:02 pm

From The Reading Experience

Caleb Crain warns us that

There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, but some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become ‘an increasingly arcane hobby.’

I’m not really all that bothered by the idea that reading will one day perhaps be confined to a “reading class,” primarily because, as far as literature is concerned, it more or less already is. It may be true that “In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months.” and that “The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.” That something around 50% of Americans still read poetry or fiction at all doesn’t finally seem that bad to me, but this measure is not very rigorous: These are the numbers of people who self-reported reading at least one “work of creative literature,” and we can probably safely guess that for many–probably most–only one or two such works per year is probably the more accurate report. Thus, those of us who read works of literature on a regular basis, who don’t even necessarily read “for pleasure” but out of a deeply felt need that makes it seem impossible to us that reading might someday disappear, are no doubt even now practicing what seems to non-readers an “arcane hobby.”

The use of the word” hobby,” of course, is meant to disturb us, to shock us out of our complacency about the written word’s loss of “the prestige of exclusivity.” What kind of world will it be if literacy were to become only a “hobby,” as if the ability to read were merely something a few people chose to do in their spare time? (In this future, rather than spend his Saturdays in the basement doing woodwork, Dad might be squirreled away in a damp corner, reading with a flashlight so the kids won’t see his shame?) But that reading might one day be the exclusive privilege of those who actually like to do it, that books might be written for those who want to read them rather than for those who don’t, doesn’t finally seem to me a cause for lament. I feel confident enough that the appeal of “great books” is sufficiently constant that there will always be a fairly sizable group of intrepid people who will want to be able to discover for themselves what they have to offer.

But really Crain isn’t so much interested in whether literature will survive. Although he begins his essay by citing the NEA report (which alerted us to the decline in interest in “creative literature”) and further points out that schoolchildren are especially losing interest in “reading for literary experience,” most of his discussion of literacy vs. “orality” focuses on the superiority of the former in processing information, not on the loss of literature. Indeed, Crain sums up the research of linguist Walter Ong in this way:

Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories. According to Ong, the best way to preserve ideas in the absence of writing is to “think memorable thoughts,” whose zing insures their transmission. In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk.

If anything, the “oral mind-set” is more likely to express itself through a “literary experience,” through an account of the world as related through story. Abstract concepts and analysis are the tools of philosophy, not literature, and while I ultimately do not think literature can be reduced to the telling of stories (the “literary” lies elsewhere than in the entanglements of story, although it is just as irreducible to “ideas”), it also does not depend on the reader’s ability to “rotate” abstractions and is not strictly commensurate with the “calm and abstract investigations” literacy in Crain’s definition makes possible.

Crain’s reliance on a definition that privileges expository discourse as the object of reading is made only more explicit when he cites “a series of British studies in which people who read transcripts of television newscasts, political programs, advertisements, and science shows recalled more information than those who had watched the shows themselves” or when he concludes that “in a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.” I’m certainly not going to dispute that a literate society is preferable to an illiterate one, but few if any of these dangers the new illiteracy poses, at least according to Crain’s analysis, threaten to undermine or endanger the literary tradition. The vast majority of technically literate people have always been at best indifferent to this tradition, and it won’t be any more irrelevant to the mass of non-readers when they’re officially illiterate.

I agree with Anna Clark in spirit when she suggests that “The urgency [Crain’s essay] inspires is of duty, not of excitement–exactly the wrong way to promote reading. The N.E.A. and New Yorker article make people feel bad because they *should* be reading more, because reading is good for you, like Vitamin C.” But I think Crain’s cautionary report is directed less at the individual reader who is shirking her duty than at society as a whole, the literate elite of which doesn’t seem to realize what is happening. It’s more concerned about the consequences for “culture” than for any particular set of readers. Myself, I don’t believe that continual handwringing about “secondary orality” is going to make our culture less inimical to serious writing and reading than it obviously is, nor will threatening non-readers with the label “illiterate” frighten many of them into taking their Vitamin C. Perhaps it would be better simply to reinforce the enthusiasm of actually existing readers for their “arcane hobby” and let Culture take care of itself.


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