Thursday, July 3, 2008

Do Not Read While Operating Heavy Machinery

Ah! Everywhere you look, someone strikes up the doom gong and dirge about reading. And okay, the NEA has empirical proof. An interesting review of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain[1] in the New Yorker late last year mentioned the not-new-but-fascinating-if-troubling concept of a “secondary orality” in place of a literate society. And here comes Wendell Berry, straight from his Kentucky farm, offering his contrarian pearls of wisdom untouched by television or YouTube, in a terrific (even if you think Berry is a Luddite) interview in The Sun. (Thanks Cliff.) But these articles feed a pugnacious hope. If Jared Diamond’s book Collapse[2] didn’t suffice as an argument why literate cultures are kind of a good idea, they add to the heft. And you have to love Berry for saying, “If you’ve lost the capacity to be outraged by what’s outrageous, you’re dead. Somebody ought to come and haul you off.”

Ursula K. LeGuin attacked some points about the reading decline in Harper’s this February in satisfying fashion. And perhaps publisher Jonathan Karp took note. He actually hopes, in the Washington Post, for a return to the days when authors had several years to write books, and calls for the industry to publish better ones. Wow. He doesn’t seem to think he’s going out of business any time soon. He has, like, ideas for this. Is this like Don Quixote hunting down the good old chivalric days[3], or that guy in the Jorge Luis Borges story who wants to write Don Quixote from scratch[4]? Or Victor Frankenstein's sigh of relief at the end of every other chapter?[5] Or any reader, having read one story out of Jhumpa Lahiri's latest award-winning collection, looking forward to a happy ending in any of the next?[6] (Or yeah, sorry, you know, like Jerry Maguire and his theses on sports agenthood?)

I choose to think not. Call me quixotic.

Update: the author of, Jessa Crispin, had an interesting reply for Karp.

Happy Independence Day!

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