The End of Books

I just finished reading an article by Urusula Le Guin in Harpers about the precipitous decline of book reading over the past few years. Le Guin, herself a novelist, is not particularly worried about the decline of book reading. (She notes, for example, that the polls surveying people’s reading only accepted “literary” works as valid. Non-fiction books apparently don’t count as books.) After, all, people have only really read novels regularly for a few hundred years, at best. Rather, she’s concerned that the corporate mentaility of booksellers and publishers compromises the quality of the books that are published.

Like Le Guin, I’m weary of the doomsayers who claim that the decline of book reading is a sign of the apocalypse. There are ample sources claiming that literacy and reading comprehension are declining, but in my experience, the people writing those sources generally define reading, literacy, and decline in really limited ways. The polls that Le Guin’s critiques which don’t accept anything but “literature” as books are a great example. Another of my favorite examples comes from Mark Bauerlein, who argues that young people are “the dumbest generation” because they don’t engage information as their forbears did. Bauerlein denies that social networking is literate work because it’s self-involved and lazy. His evidence? Kids don’t pass standardized tests the way the once did. The list of doomsayers is long with polemicists.

What seems always to be ignored by doomsayers, though, is that literacy as the ability to read and write is higher than it’s ever been. For the majority of human history, the majority of humans couldn’t read or write anything. Less than 200 years ago, Americans were actively preventing slaves and many women from learning to read or write. And as Le Guin points out, literacy has always been rationed by the ruling classes as a way to maintain class privilege. In 2009, more people read and write more kinds of language than our “brilliant” forbears could have even imagined 30 years ago. For example, the Senate passed a resolution designating October 20 the “National Day on Writing” in recognition of the way writing shapes our world, and the National Council of Teachers of English sponsored the National Gallery of Writing to showcase a small fraction of the important (and not-so-important) writing that people are doing–people including all those dumb, illiterate young kids that worry Bauerlein and his friends.

I’m not going to claim that all the things people read and write today are better or worse than anything written or read in the past, but in a country that continues to support arguments about everything from health care to drinking water on the twin pillars of choice and competition, it seems a little silly to think that everyone needs to read The Brothers Karamazov to be considered intelligent people, much less contributing citizens. The landscape of new literacies in our digitized, globalized world gives people lots of choices and gives books lots of competition. And people are choosing. They’re reading (this blog, hopefully), and they’re writing (not this blog, hopefully). Books, contrary to popular belief, are no more moral than any of the choices competing with them for people’s literate attentions. To sum up, boo to doomsayers, yay to Le Guin, and three cheers to rampant reading and writing, even if it isn’t in the form of language accepted by the doomsayers as valuable.

One thought on “The End of Books

  1. Like you point out, the novel is relatively new and I would add that many considered novel reading a waste of time and moral harm in the late 18th/ early 19th centuries. Education lags behind literary innovation. It assimilates painfully slowly, conservatively, and, often, reluctantly. Rather than the educational system assessing itself against how well it fits into community and culture, it instead places itself as the benchmark against which community and culture are measured. Don't you think, though, that with the advent of cultural studies and related fields (I think this is an area where rhetoric fits in nicely) that there is a growing acknowledgment that contemporary culture and education can be mutually beneficial if we change our ways of thinking?Interesting post, Ryan. Thanks for getting me thinking and warmed up for a big day of correcting!

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