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Reports of Reading Decline Greatly Exaggerated?
February 21, 2008 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Are people reading less? Government survey says: yes. Declines in how much and how well people read “are adversely affecting this country's culture, economy, and civic life as well as our children's educational achievement.” Also the cause of poor test scores. Steve Jobs agrees: Kindle DOA because nobody reads books anymore. WaPo says 1 in 4 persons read no books in 2006. And children didn't keep reading after they got through Harry Potter, either. So literacy's in a long slow decline.
But wait.

The NEA survey has been completely shredded in the blogs; the survey focused on literary reading with a book in your hands, totally excluding anything like, say, spending hours on MeFi. Or, say, reading anything from here. This is odd because the NEA survey placed so much emphasis on whether people read for pleasure. They should check in with the NEH, which is helping to create on-line archives for your reading pleasure.

Jobs’s take on the data is challenged here. Some people read a lot of books. ¾ people read at least one. A little self-serving Steve? What about all that reading (and spelling) people need to use your computers? That wouldn’t show up in the survey either.

And the widely repeated story about children not reading more after Harry Potter: mostly impressions and “expert” opinion. The only data are about how much children report they read “for fun." After they’ve finished their ton of homework, practiced violin, sent a dozen text messages and updated their MySpace pages.

So are people reading less? If book reading is being replaced by other forms of reading it’s bad news for the publishing industry but won’t necessarily make society stupid. Maybe what and how we’re reading is changing, not how much.

But you know, that might not be saying much because the baseline is so low: the US comes out poorly in cross-national comparisons of literacy levels. And that's not good.
posted by cogneuro (122 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Someone needs to write Metafilter: The Book. 'Projects,' anyone?
posted by farishta at 7:19 AM on February 21, 2008


I'm not sure people not reading books is the Kindles problem - people being a bit to attached to books might be a bit more like it.
posted by Artw at 7:26 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Right, The Kindle is DOA because people who read enjoy books, and collecting them. I enjoy the experience of a book and I will never, ever buy an electronic reading device.
posted by fusinski at 7:32 AM on February 21, 2008


The only data are about how much children report they read “for fun." After they’ve finished their ton of homework, practiced violin, sent a dozen text messages and updated their MySpace pages

But they ARE reading when they check profiles on Myspace, yes? These stats aren't distinguishing very well between reading books and literacy. Considering this whole internet thing, I think that's a bit of a leap. There's a whole lot to read out there that isn't bound in a physical book, and I doubt I'd report reading MeFi or slashdot as "reading for fun" if someone asked me, any more than a kid would report surfing online as "reading for fun".

The problem might be better articulated as no one reading beyond their current level. If kids are only reading the Myspace messages and blogs of their peers, they aren't going to be expanding their horizons or increasing their vocabulary.
posted by almostmanda at 7:35 AM on February 21, 2008


Glad to see all those years of denigrating teachers and public schools is finally bearing fruit.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:37 AM on February 21, 2008


I think the Kindle is DOA because it costs $400 and is harder to read (lower resolution/contrast, battery life, greater size/weight) than a paper book.

People will buy electronic books when they make one that's as cheap as paper for the number of books that an average person buys in a year, and also doesn't require batteries and offers similar resolution, contrast, and reflectivity to paper. In other words, people will buy it when it's actually the superior product. Right now it's not.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:37 AM on February 21, 2008 [7 favorites]


Literature has died more times than a n00b with a dial-up connection in Unreal Tournament, amirite?
posted by Mister_A at 7:37 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Kids on lawn. Film at 11. Now over to Steven with the Loud Music Report.
posted by DU at 7:40 AM on February 21, 2008 [4 favorites]


Dumb and Dumber
posted by caddis at 7:43 AM on February 21, 2008


I think the Kindle is DOA because it costs $400 and is harder to read (lower resolution/contrast, battery life, greater size/weight) than a paper book.

Um, have you used one? I have and the screen is *stunning* with high contrast and very easy to read, the form factor feels like a book, and the persistent network connection is a game changer.

If by "DOA" you mean "sold out" then I'd agree with you.
posted by donovan at 7:47 AM on February 21, 2008


The worst part about the Kindle is that you can't put the books you buy with it on a shelf in your living room, so guests can't see how enlightened you are.
posted by fusinski at 7:49 AM on February 21, 2008 [6 favorites]


What's often lost in these assessments of child reading rates is that a lot of what kids read is total crap. When I was a kid, I read some pretty good stuff (C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle), but also some awful stuff (Piers Anthony, Hardy Boys). It's not like kids are reading Joyce when they do get around to opening a book. But any reading is good to the extent that it keeps a child engaged in being literate. The import of this is that online reading and e-mailing -- even if it often involves flawed written material -- may not be as bad a substitute for "book reading" as one might initially believe, since kids aren't always reading great books anyway. On the other hand, a steady diet of MySpace alone will inevitably result in a child's brains melting out of his or her nose.
posted by brain_drain at 7:49 AM on February 21, 2008


its not we r rdng less, its jus the wrds we r rdng r shortr thnks 2 txt kay thx bye
posted by davemee at 7:52 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


"So literacy's in a long slow decline. "

Suggesting that literacy is in decline because people stopped reading books is like suggesting music is in decline because people don't buy disco records any more. People are certainly reading, just not books.
posted by aubin at 7:54 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Too many words. Can someone post a youtube summary?
posted by b1tr0t at 7:54 AM on February 21, 2008


Reading fiction is not as good for you as some would have you believe.
posted by jeblis at 7:56 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the article seems to be more attached with "books" as a tangible thing than reading as an activity. Honestly, as culture changes, so does the medium of that culture. Is anyone surprised that in this hyperactive age that we live in, where almost infinite amounts of data/media are available instantaneously, that people are less likely to sit down and spend a week on some ponderous tome like war and peace? Imagine the volume of data that one can parse (and then immediately forget), in that time? How much TMZ and digg and 4chan and hype machine... how many minisodes!

What I notice is that long form fiction is whats getting the shaft. With the availability of wikipedia on your sidekick7, "Kids These Days"(tm) non-fiction interest is WAY up. [Mis]information on any topic can be located easily, and the next generation seems greatly enthusiastic about not having to go through the rigmarole of dealing with entrenched academia as your lone reliable source of, probably outdated, information.

As a result, the general cultural connectivity seems to be at a far greater state than ever before! Who cares if books-as-a-tangible-object go the way of the fiscally conservative republican. Bring on the iReader! I have a MASSIVE library of books which I dutifully collected for my entire life, and carted lovingly from state to state. Honestly? Who but an antiquarian cares? We will have to change.


on preview, my post is kind of ironic. TL;DR anyone?
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 7:56 AM on February 21, 2008


The kids of today, they do not press a wedge-shaped stick into clay in the ways of their forefathers! They use "papyrus" which is suitable only for the ephemeral thoughts of the superficial know-not. And the bright garish colors of "ink" cause the brain the overheat. Give me the simplicity of a stone tablet, for I fear the days of writing are numbered.
posted by DU at 7:56 AM on February 21, 2008 [14 favorites]


The worst part about the Kindle is that you can't put the books you buy with it on a shelf in your living room, so guests can't see how enlightened you are.

You can get some of these instead.
posted by brain_drain at 7:58 AM on February 21, 2008


Just anecdotally, out of my 10 or so closest friends, only two do not read for fun. One of those two is going back for a degree so she's reading for class and has little time or interest in reading for fun. Her husband, the other non-reader, has difficulties with dyslexia and just has never enjoyed reading. All of my other friends read fairly regularly. Now granted, they're not reading "literature" per se, but they are reading. They do tend to get amused at my book a week habit, but I understand I'm a freak because I read just sooooo much.

Personally as a librarian, I think these chicken little stories about the decline of reading are just silly. Every few years there's a story about OMG! Nobody reads!!! and then that's usually followed by a story about how nobody uses libraries anymore. Feh. We may be a university library so students kinda have to use us, but that doesn't explain the moderate to good useage stats from community members and alumni.

Pleasure reading's not going the way of the dodo anytime soon. Legible handwriting, though, it's days are numbered.
posted by teleri025 at 7:59 AM on February 21, 2008


Okay, Kindle... Why does a digital reader have to be a separate device? At this point, its DOA because you have an iPhone or Android which does 29384x10-too-the-10th things, and a kindle which does ONE(ish)... hopefully the lack of initial interest doesn't kill the idea, because when we come to the Great Universal Tablet Device in teh near future, it better have an awesome soothing faux-paper style display which does 16 mil colors and rapid graphics, and the whole proj gutenburg. Literacy will SKYROCKET, simply because people are often bored...
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 8:04 AM on February 21, 2008


While I agree with the assessment that we don't really need to worry about literacy per se, because of the widespread use of text messaging/Wikipedia, etc., I do worry about the loss of certain types of writing which are generally confined to the printed page. The internet might make a good substitute for a newspaper or encyclopedia, but I don't think many people are turning to it as a replacement for fiction of any sort. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't see many people sitting down in front of their computer to slog through Moby Dick. It's not reading as a skill that we need to worry about, but rather what people have chosen to read. If people are finding better ways to get information that's fine, but if their choices mean they are no longer in dialogue with information from the past, that's not.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:07 AM on February 21, 2008


then you have a "recently read" list on your facebook page imported from your iReader, just like your last.fm playlist rss.

solves the "impress friends with ur enlightenment" issue quite nicely, plus frees my shelves for more piles of random stuff
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 8:08 AM on February 21, 2008


Hmm. I would actually agree that web surfing isn't the same down as reading a book. Theres a big difference between flitting between short chunks of tecxt and sitting down and absorbing a big long peice. Perhaps the problem is not that people are less able to read and more that they're utterly ADHD?
posted by Artw at 8:09 AM on February 21, 2008


I find that on a limited subset of children I have analyzed (the three who live in my house), they read quite often for pleasure, and with little or no prompting from me or my wife. My middle daughter somehow keeps three books going at the same time, which I can never understand because I can only work through one at a time.
posted by genefinder at 8:10 AM on February 21, 2008


And children didn't keep reading after they got through Harry Potter

What a surprise, Harold Bloom said this very thing: "Is it better that they read Rowling than not read at all? Will they advance from Rowling to more difficult pleasures?" Apparently not.
posted by stbalbach at 8:11 AM on February 21, 2008


Without meaning to micromanage the thread: the OP raised more than one issue. Yes the NEA was stupid for defining reading so narrowly and self-interestedly. That was why I mentioned other literacy activities like reading on the internet (e.g., mefi), texting and even MySpace. But you know, literacy levels in this country are LOW. 30% of children score at the "basic" (lowest) level on the NAEP, a reasonable test as opposed to the state-jiggered ones. Percentage hasn't changed much since the test was begun in the 1990s. Less than 15% of African American children score as "proficient." Then there are the children who learn to read but don't like it. Something is wrong and it's not captured by either the NEA report or the sales figures at Borders or the personal experiences of high literacy mefites. If you immediately assimilate this situation to "sky is falling; news at 11" or "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" you're on autopilot.
posted by cogneuro at 8:18 AM on February 21, 2008


I don't buy into the reading relativism arguments, that all reading is equal, that reading MeFi is the same as reading War and Peace. Some reading is easy, and some reading is hard. There are qualitative differences.
posted by stbalbach at 8:22 AM on February 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


I don't get to read nearly as much as I used to or want to thanks to long work hours these days. I'm pretty much restricted to reading some Sharpe's on the train into and out of work in the morning and evening. Getting low on those, too. Almost no one I know reads for pleasure, which is sad.

The kindle looks a lot like what I imagined, back when I first read/heard it, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy must look like, if it existed. I won't make the switch to electronic readers until they look like books. Give me something with a binding and a large number (1000?) of those "electronic paper" pages, with some flash RAM in the spine to hold my "books" and some method of bookmarking my various volumes. I'd be on that in a heartbeat.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:22 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


They used to use projectors to show us films back when I was in school. I used to enjoy getting to watch the cartoon/movie/documentary as much as everybody else did, sure. But one thing that used to give me a giddy anticipation was watching the film spool out slowly from the the uptake reel. The lower the spool got, the less film there was coming. Periodically noting the height of the spool gave me a rough idea of how much film there was left to watch. Knowing this heightened the climax of whatever we were watching and made it seem more intense because I knew it was about to end.

The same is true for books with me. I love to feel the thickness of the pages in my right hand when I start a book, and it excites me to feel that thickness get progressively lesser as I read through the book. There's a conceptual as well as a physical itteration of what's left to be read that I enjoy immensely, and that alone makes owning an electronic reading device utterly worthless to me.

/nostaliga
posted by Pecinpah at 8:23 AM on February 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


i wunderz thoo if kidz reed myspace rthr thn books + if thats bad. lol!!1!
posted by agregoli at 8:24 AM on February 21, 2008


Won't somebody please think of the children?
posted by aftermarketradio at 8:25 AM on February 21, 2008


I'm pretty certain that literacy levels are higher than they were 100 years ago, so, accepting the premise that they are in decline, when did they actually peak?
posted by Artw at 8:25 AM on February 21, 2008


Blue, you disappoint me. Reading MySpace is equivalent to reading a book? Sorry, that's a bunch of crap. You might as well argue that playing video games is exercise because, hey, it involves muscle movement.

Reading a book -- even a crappy book -- requires far more patience and involvement than skimming Wikipedia, or checking for updates on MySpace, or even learning cool new things about the world from MetaFilter. Whether it's as wholesome and beneficial as groups like the NEA believe, I don't know. But it's more than simply translating printed marks into words.

I like the idea of the Kindle, but I find it really hard to read much on a computer screen. I spend most of my day "reading" online, but when I was in law school I wound up putting nearly everything in hardcopy; I just couldn't absorb it as as well from the screen.
posted by bjrubble at 8:26 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


My middle daughter somehow keeps three books going at the same time, which I can never understand because I can only work through one at a time.

Those were the days, when responsibilities were few. High school had some stuff going for it.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:31 AM on February 21, 2008


We have to make reading the great books seem cool.

Here's how:

Lïtërätürë Röcks
posted by Mister_A at 8:35 AM on February 21, 2008


Oh, and I can anecdotally confirm the "Harry Potter doesn't lead to more reading" hypothesis. My girlfriend has read all 7 books twice (and she got into it within the last year, but it took her three months to finish Black Blossom, a thoroughly excellent book of 140 pages. It makes me sad that my review is still the only one for it on Amazon. She hasn't read anything significant since, and neither have my little brothers who were also Potterites.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:36 AM on February 21, 2008


If book reading is being replaced by other forms of reading it’s bad news for the publishing industry but won’t necessarily make society stupid.

I disagree. Like it or not, books are still the primary delivery mechanism for the delivery of mind-expanding complicated ideas, be they non-fiction or fiction. Texting and going on MySpace are not the same and are not able to deliver the same intellectual benefits.
posted by patricio at 8:38 AM on February 21, 2008


I am old enough to remember when everyone had read everything and kids were never on my lawn because they were reading. Of course we were worried then about the decline of oral storytelling.
posted by srboisvert at 8:38 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't buy into the reading relativism arguments, that all reading is equal, that reading MeFi is the same as reading War and Peace. Some reading is easy, and some reading is hard. There are qualitative differences.
posted by stbalbach at 8:22 AM on February 21 [+] [!]


This is an interesting point...

Although one wonders about those who 'read' difficult books. I have a number of (very intelligent! high class! aesthetes! etc.) who have a brilliant collection of top notch classic and modern literature of which they have read, MAYBE 30 pages of each.

I can be accused of similar crimes. to mention but one example: During a Joyce phase (whos writing i generally do enjoy), I forced myself to read and re-read Ulysses until I felt like I had some degree of comprehension. FORCED i say... like crawling through broken glass or something, but for weeks. All this simply because I felt completely left out of conversations with lit grads discussing finer details about the book. When I finally was confident enough to bring my critiques to their discussions, they were puzzled by my opinions. It turns out, neither of them had read anything but excerpts from the book, and were simply echoing back and forth the opinions of their various professors and favorite critics.

This is harvard? this is reading comprehension?

yes Mr. Neanderthal. If you are an ambitious literary personage, who wants to waste time with dusty old tomes? its about ego, not enlightenment, duh...
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 8:40 AM on February 21, 2008 [5 favorites]


I don't think this is a problem. Universal literacy is such a new phenomenon, and we're only beginning to see its consequences; I think what this should tell us is that the majority of people neither appreciate nor care about the kind of cultivation someone needs in order to write like a Borges or an Umberto Eco (or to properly appreciate them), even if they are given the financial resources and basic skills needed to acquire it. An English commoner in the eighteenth century would have owned, on average, two books--the Bible and the Pilgrim's Progress--and would probably not have missed the rest. Why are we surprised when the majority of people today don't want to be intellectuals? It has always been thus.

On the other hand, a steady diet of MySpace alone will inevitably result in a child's brains melting out of his or her nose.
posted by brain_drain at 10:49 AM


eponysterical
posted by nasreddin at 8:45 AM on February 21, 2008



I can be accused of similar crimes. to mention but one example: During a Joyce phase (whos writing i generally do enjoy), I forced myself to read and re-read Ulysses until I felt like I had some degree of comprehension. FORCED i say... like crawling through broken glass or something, but for weeks. All this simply because I felt completely left out of conversations with lit grads discussing finer details about the book. When I finally was confident enough to bring my critiques to their discussions, they were puzzled by my opinions. It turns out, neither of them had read anything but excerpts from the book, and were simply echoing back and forth the opinions of their various professors and favorite critics.


You are a fine example of a human being, and the lit grads are repulsive, contemptible scum.
posted by nasreddin at 8:47 AM on February 21, 2008 [4 favorites]


I used to live at the library as a kid, devouring facts, fiction, and knowledge. These days it's a struggle to get through a few books a year. My attention span is basically shot! Then again, I've always been puzzled at why reading fiction in volume is held in such high esteem. You have brilliant works, absolute junk, and a whole lot in between - and it can be just as passive as watching TV.

"Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking." - Albert Einstein
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 8:48 AM on February 21, 2008


I'm pretty certain that literacy levels are higher than they were 100 years ago, so, accepting the premise that they are in decline, when did they actually peak?

Good question. On the flip side, when did the audio/visual culture come to dominance? I would say 1960s and 70s and took off in the 80s. It's a generational shift so it takes time for it to show up in the surveys, a lot of older people still read. Further complicating the picture, most people read more the older they get. Probably a good question would be, what are the reading rates of 40-year olds today compared to 20 years ago? I would bet it has declined.
posted by stbalbach at 8:56 AM on February 21, 2008


I think the Kindle would be cool to have and collect books for, if it looks as good as reported. The problem I have with it is that the Amazon business plan almost surely already has a plan to make it obsolete at some point. Those books on the shelf might be bulky and outdated, but I'll still be able to read them in 20 years, and they won't require me to go on some potentially expensive upgrade path to do so. Call me when they've set up something that is non-proprietary, isn't going to break, and will still allow me to read through the coming Greater Depression, when battery charging might not be an option.
posted by troybob at 9:03 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks nas! I do feel owed a medal or something :D

I forgot to conclude though!

1. I was only reading it because my ego as an "intellectual" required me to have a qualified opinion on such a beast. Is that "reading for enjoyment" or even "comprehension"?

2. Those who set the literary canon, those would most gnash and wail at the "dumbing down of american literacy" or whatever, could be as guilty of weak "reading comprehension skillz" as the phlebs! They simply immerse themselves in the culture of literature so thoroughly that they are dripping with enough "qualified opinion" to pass them through the ivory tower long enough to ACTUALLY FORM A QUALIFIED OPINION on SOMEthing.

Their lives and careers are made by having a very small number of published critiques, and then a book or two later in life which is filtered through ages of reading other critiques on the same material. Strange to the outsider, huh?
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 9:03 AM on February 21, 2008


Thread is worthless without pics.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:09 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I want to know who’s dumb idea it was to but a keyboard on the Kindle. I’d like to ask them, “What was the last book you bought that came with a keyboard attached?”
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 9:12 AM on February 21, 2008


Paper books don't have search.
posted by Artw at 9:14 AM on February 21, 2008


I’d like to ask them, “What was the last book you bought that came with a keyboard attached?”

Well, there's this one.
posted by brain_drain at 9:21 AM on February 21, 2008


I was only reading it because my ego as an "intellectual" required me to have a qualified opinion on such a beast. Is that "reading for enjoyment" or even "comprehension"?

I've read books because I felt like I should read them, or at least should want to read them. Even when I haven't particularly enjoyed it, I think I've gained something from it, whether it's a refinement of my preferences or a push in a different direction. I'd be surprised if your extended Ulysses hell did not reward your reading life on some level.
posted by troybob at 9:28 AM on February 21, 2008


or: sometimes people do charity work in order to impress others...but it's still charity work.
posted by troybob at 9:30 AM on February 21, 2008


This thread is kinda depressing. Still, when I go to the bookstore there are -always- people in it. Same goes for the library to a slower and lesser extent, but it isn't like it just stands unused. My friends all read books, and while I'm generally horrified when someone reveals that they've never read a book for fun, those people are rarely someone I particularly like being around anyway.

As for the whole Harry Potter thing, I'm pretty certain that some of those who read Potter obsessively and then didn't pick up anything else, simply graduated to Harry Potter fanfics afterwards *shudders* If you can call that reading.

/booksnobbery
posted by CheshireCat at 9:31 AM on February 21, 2008


A favorite Harold Bloom observation (from):

I read a lavish, loving review of Harry Potter by . . . Stephen King. He wrote something to the effect of, "If these kids are reading Harry Potter at 11 or 12, then when they get older they will go on to read Stephen King." And he was quite right. He was not being ironic. When you read "Harry Potter" you are, in fact, trained to read Stephen King.
posted by troybob at 9:39 AM on February 21, 2008


I've seen a lot of Kindle proponents make the claim that donovan made, which essentially goes "If it's so crappy/no one wants it/nobody reads, why is it sold out?"

I don't buy that argument for a second. Who's to say Amazon didn't create an artificial demand for it by making a ridiculously low amount? Sure, the Kindle is sold out, but do you know anyone who bought one? I don't, and I spend most of my time at a university working with a ton of professors, which you'd think would be the ideal target audience.

Until Kindle sales figures are released, it's hard to call it a hit just because it's sold out.
posted by patr1ck at 9:41 AM on February 21, 2008


I keep waiting for the impending death of reading to get here already, so that the big bookstores will have their going-out-of-business sales. Then I can finally afford to get the books I have always wanted.

Then of course I'll end up breaking my glasses and have to sit there with an eternity's worth of books but no way to read them OH THE HORROR
posted by caution live frogs at 9:46 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]



or: sometimes people do charity work in order to impress others...but it's still charity work.
posted by troybob at 9:30 AM on February 21 [+] [!]


Good call! I completely agree that america is in a need of intellectual charity! (now can i get that as a deduction??)

;-D
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 9:47 AM on February 21, 2008


Nothing wrong with King.
posted by Artw at 9:51 AM on February 21, 2008


Nothing wrong with King.
posted by Artw at 11:51 AM on February 21


Uh, oh, rocks ahead. Is it premature to blow the derail foghorn? (read Gunslinger and On Writing, enjoyed both)
posted by adamdschneider at 9:52 AM on February 21, 2008


There's lots of "why the Kindle is DOA" talk for a product that's been sold out since it was announced.
posted by hob at 9:57 AM on February 21, 2008


Segwey like levels of success!
posted by Artw at 9:58 AM on February 21, 2008


I never read Ulysses, and I hate talking to lit students, but I do enjoy a good book. Although I couldn't take Harry Potter after the 3rd book, just not my thing. Where am I going with this? I have no idea, except that my 15 month old daughter has her nose stuck in a book over 50% of the time.


And is Stephen King above or below Rowling in literary ranking? My hunch is above, and in between you can find Robert Jordan.
posted by Vindaloo at 10:00 AM on February 21, 2008


hob: Also sold out. IT MUST BE AWESOME?!
posted by patr1ck at 10:07 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, with books printed on paper, you can't just Ctrl+F (or Apple+F) for key words to get to the good parts.

Kidding, of course. I think.
posted by notoriousbhc at 10:08 AM on February 21, 2008


I've seen a lot of Kindle proponents make the claim that donovan made, which essentially goes "If it's so crappy/no one wants it/nobody reads, why is it sold out?"

Until Kindle sales figures are released, it's hard to call it a hit just because it's sold out.


To be clear, I didn't claim it was a hit but was disputing the notion that it was "DOA."

Obviously we haven't seen sales figures and my understanding is that there is a supply chain issue holding up manufacturing.

My other point was that, having used the device (after approaching it with some skepticism) it's obvious to me that the concept is a winner even if it will take a couple product iterations to get it completely right. It's like TiVo or Rhapsody, which are hardware/software examples of things that fundamentally change your relationship to a medium, but which are really hard to "get" until you use them.

The fact that kindle is a connected device is what makes it different in kind from other ebook readers. And the keyboard? Yes ugly and clunky, but let's you not only search but also annotate what you read. The first thought I had upon using it was: "Damn, this would have rocked in college and made my backpack a lot lighter." I was also skeptical that I'd want to read anything in the Kindle catalog but was pleased to discover that the last four books I'd read and the next three I have queued up were all available and could be purchased for a fraction of the price I paid for the hard goods. (Yes, I think DRM is lame, but that's another topic).

I'll note as well that the OP's noting that Steve Jobs dissed the Kindle 'cause "nobody reads anymore" is exactly the kind of Jobsian statement that let's me know Apple is working on their own version of something along these lines . . . Jobs is famous for dismissing ideas until Apple rides in on a white horse with their "insanely great" solution to the previously unsolvable problem. See, for example, his previous comments about how nobody wants to watch video on a tiny screen . . . until, of course, they added video support to the iPod Nano.
posted by donovan at 10:16 AM on February 21, 2008


all the hurf durf noise about king and rowling is just trickle-down from the same... I completely inclined to that believe people would read more if there wasnt this stigma about the books they chose to read.

I'm 100% sure that the potter books were not popular because there is something inherently remarkable about the stories themselves, but more that it became a socially acceptable thing to do for kids and adults to read these charming coming-of-age books about magic and fun. Which is what we all want to do: read a book for fun.

If only this weren't an isolated phenomenon! Oh wait... Da Vinci code anyone? King almost fits in to this... There must be more...
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 10:19 AM on February 21, 2008


I'd be happy to get a Kindle when it halves in price, comes in color, and Amazon partners with Marvel and DC to provide for automatic comic subscription downloads.

DO YOU HEAR THAT, AMERICA?! I AM A 20 SOMETHING WHITE MALE WITH ENOUGH DISPOSABLE INCOME TO BUY AN OVERPRICED DEVICE SO THAT I CAN READ ABOUT OVERLY MUSCLED MEN IN TIGHTS AND THE WOMEN WHO LOVE THEM. FALL TO YOUR KNEES, INDUSTRY, AND CONTINUE TO CATER TO MY EVERY WHIM! BWAHAHAHAHA!

Ahem. Anyways, I don't buy this whole death of reading/coma of the book thing. Books and the printed page will be with us for a long, long time, regardless of how many other readable media exist out there. Even if people end up doing most of their reading on a computer screen, books as a permanent, no-need-to-upgrade resources will remain a cheap and simple method for exchanging ideas. We won't need to make a 200$+ investment to read a 5$ (7$) mass market paperback.

UNLESS OF COURSE THAT 200$ COLOR COMICBOOK MACHINE ALSO PLAYS MUSIC, TAKES PICTURES, AND CAN AUTOMATICALLY PHOTOSHOP THE HEADS OF PEOPLE AROUND ME ONTO THE BODIES OF COMICBOOK CHARACTERS. AGAIN, I AM THE UR-CONSUMER WHO DOESN'T KNOW BETTER, YOU SHALL BEND TO MY WILL!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:28 AM on February 21, 2008


I'd give comics 20 years, max.
posted by Artw at 10:33 AM on February 21, 2008


It's always weird when I see reports like this—everyone I know reads voraciously, and has pretty much my whole life.

That could, of course, be because I was a socially awkward adolescent and retreated into books for nearly all of middle and high school.

But I've already finished three books in 2008, not counting graphic novels, and I feel like one of the sluggish folks in my social circle. Which makes the problem of kids not reading totally alien to me.
posted by klangklangston at 10:39 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


UNLESS OF COURSE THAT 200$ COLOR COMICBOOK MACHINE ALSO PLAYS MUSIC, TAKES PICTURES, AND CAN AUTOMATICALLY PHOTOSHOP THE HEADS OF PEOPLE AROUND ME ONTO THE BODIES OF COMICBOOK CHARACTERS. AGAIN, I AM THE UR-CONSUMER WHO DOESN'T KNOW BETTER, YOU SHALL BEND TO MY WILL!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:28 AM on February 21 [+] [!]


flagged for suspicious accuracy :]
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 10:40 AM on February 21, 2008


“And the keyboard? Yes ugly and clunky, …”

Look at the onscreen keyboard of the iPhone for comparison. Every bit as functional, and neither ugly nor clunky, but the main benefit is that it isn’t there when you aren’t using it. Yes, you can use the Kindle’s keyboard to search and annotate, but those are secondary functions, at best. The primary function of the device is reading text, not typing it. And yet the keyboard makes up 20 or 30% of the device’s size.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 10:42 AM on February 21, 2008


Although one wonders about those who 'read' difficult books. I have a number of (very intelligent! high class! aesthetes! etc.) who have a brilliant collection of top notch classic and modern literature of which they have read, MAYBE 30 pages of each.

So you know a bunch of pretentious twits, and this means that nobody in the world ever finishes a 'difficult' book. Is that what you're saying? Because that's what I'm hearing.

And you imply that you're at Harvard. I always thought that place was overrated.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:16 AM on February 21, 2008


I'd give comics 20 years, max.

Who the hell is max?
posted by Mister_A at 11:20 AM on February 21, 2008


I've got a Kindle and I love the damn thing.

As others have said there are certainly issues with the design. It's mainly that the buttons to turn the page line almost the entirety of the left and right of the device, which makes it wonderfully easy to turn the page without interrupting the flow of reading but also makes it far too easy to turn the page accidentally.

The keyboard, however, is not a problem and I'm glad it is there. I've got an iTouch and my wife has an iPhone and the onscreen keyboard is horrendous. I can barely get through a word without triggering one of the letters around the one I want. It's certainly a step forward, but a physical keyboard is still lightyears ahead in usefulness.

There's zero eyestrain on the Kindle. The screen isn't emitting light and it looks and reads exactly like the page of a book.

Here are the biggest selling points for me so far:

1) Any time anyone mentions a book: in conversation, on the radio, on a podcast, on television, I can have the first chapter of that book in my hands instantly. Every book available in the Kindle Store has the first chapter available for download for free. The download takes at most 5 seconds. If you buy the entire book, it's about the same wait. It's like carrying around my Netflix queue with me except I can sample the flicks as they come in.

2) I'm carrying everything with me at all times. I'm sure anyone who's tried to sell someone else on an mp3 player was confronted with the question "Why would I want to carry 10,000 songs around with me?" Anyone who has used an mp3 player knows the answer is "You'll see."

3) It's a quite fast (by cell network standards) always-on internet connection that I don't have to pay for beyond my initial purchase. It's got a web browser built in. It works faster than my Sidekick's browser by orders of magnitude. That's worth $400 to me right there.

4) I'm reading more and my reading is more varied. Isn't that the point?

I'll be the first to admit that $400 is crazy. At a lower price point I don't think anyone would be complaining about the device as much as they are.

I love it, though.
posted by unsupervised at 11:20 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Internet/iPod/Blog/MySpace culture of having to see everything, know everything, read everything, and hear everything will transform us an ADD culture. Process some info, throw it away, move on to the next chunk of info. I know it's already made me have a 10 second attention span. I didn't used to be this way. It has been a drastic change for me personally and it's hard to just sit down and do ANYTHING for an extended period of time anymore. Is it just me?
posted by afx114 at 11:31 AM on February 21, 2008


The Internet/iPod/Blog/MySpace culture of having to see everything, know everything, read everything, and hear everything will transform us an ADD culture. Process some info, throw it away, move on to the next chunk of info. I know it's already made me have a 10 second attention span. I didn't used to be this way. It has been a drastic change for me personally and it's hard to just sit down and do ANYTHING for an extended period of time anymore. Is it just me?

Don't worry, one day the internet will be in your head and grabbing the information there will be just like remembering things if you knew everything Wikipedia knows.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:43 AM on February 21, 2008


posted by UbuRoivas at 11:16 AM on February 21 [+] [!]

not personally at the crimson, moot on its overrating (generally people go there for the connections and CV/resume fodder than the curriculum itself), yes to the pretentious twits, no to the implication that nobody finishes a "difficult book",

my point was simply that the whole american literature guilt complex is a funny state of affairs. my pretentious twits are the ones who are the "authorities" on the subject, and would be consulted when writing one of these sky-is-falling/kids-on-lawn depravity of culture stories. They're hypocrites, to an extent, but they are certainly not the only ones! I am at a vantage point to see that this way of thinking is endemic to the culture, and so my point is: just enjoy whatever damn book you feel like

:)
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 11:50 AM on February 21, 2008


So how do audiobooks fit into all of this?
posted by Lucinda at 11:54 AM on February 21, 2008


[son] QUAALUDE: specifically for you.

"Just enjoy whatever damn book you feel like" is a great principle, though. I often feel that when people talk of 'difficult' literature they really mean 'long & boring'. Finnegan's Wake is the only book I can think of that I would call 'difficult' - in the sense that I haven't a clue what the hell is going on.

As long as you can parse the sentences, the rest of the evaluation should be about whether it is interesting & well written, not whether it is easy or hard to read. In fact, a well-written novel should be a delightful page-turner, full of wonders, and therefore not only easy, but enjoyable to read. It's only when a novel is pointless & boring that you resist reading it, so slogging through it feels like hard work.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:13 PM on February 21, 2008


In fact, a well-written novel should be a delightful page-turner, full of wonders, and therefore not only easy, but enjoyable to read. It's only when a novel is pointless & boring that you resist reading it, so slogging through it feels like hard work.

Oh, I dunno...I think Blood Meridian is pretty terrific, full of wonders even (in its way), and certainly not boring (arguably pointless, though), and reading it often feels like DAMN hard work. Like, just to read a sentence and know what the fuck is going on in it. But I'd have no problem parsing John Grisham...I just wouldn't ever have any desire to do so. This is not to say that high readability and high quality can never go hand in hand, or that the difficult work is necessarily "better" (it may simply be unreadable shit), just that there aren't any hard and fast rules on this score.

Still, I think the whole highbrow vs. lowbrow debate is kind of missing the point. The problem isn't that Americans aren't reading literary fiction; the problem is that many Americans, it would seem, can't read much of anything and understand it. Frankly, I don't think the readers of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling -- whatever opinion you hold of these authors -- would have much difficulty with, say, a newspaper article. It's that a lot of people would indeed have that difficulty that's the real issue here.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:31 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


meh, "difficult" and "worth" is so subjective... lowbrow vs highbrow aside, i agree with kittens for breakfast: sometimes the slogging is so fun! Pynchon? David Foster Wallace? Eco? Delillo? (or good gawd, Danielowski... im still 30 pages into only revolutions...)

the problem is that many Americans, it would seem, can't read much of anything and understand it. Frankly, I don't think the readers of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling -- whatever opinion you hold of these authors -- would have much difficulty with, say, a newspaper article. It's that a lot of people would indeed have that difficulty

+1!

so then the boilerplate is functional literacy? Ick, thats depressing...
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 12:42 PM on February 21, 2008


OK, that was meant to be a general principle.

Harry Mathews can be hard going, for example, because it's all about deciphering patterns (eg first word is missing its first letter, second word the second, etc) so you end up with a novel that's more like a puzzle, or a cryptic crossword, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Still, off the top of my head I can't think of many novels I've read that count as 'difficult' (and that's out of hundreds, if not thousands, and all under the snobbish umbrella of 'literature'). Eco certainly isn't. Nor is Ulysses, once you twig that you just keep reading & preferably aloud, without caring too much what a particular word or sentence means.

Then again, I'm still to start on Gravity's Rainbow.

An example of 'difficult' because it's stultifyingly dull & pointless: Anais Nin: Cities of the Interior.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:56 PM on February 21, 2008


An example of 'difficult' because it's stultifyingly dull & pointless: Anais Nin: Cities of the Interior.
posted by UbuRoivas 6 minutes ago [+]


oh man do we both agree on that one, ubu roi... although, i had to read 2 volumes of her (20+ volume?) diary/journal, which was pretty enjoyable...




btw: did we kill this thread?
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 1:12 PM on February 21, 2008


In my experience, the people who were reading a lot of books ten years ago are still reading a lot of books now. But I live in a college town, and I've read "Ulysses" three times and have loved every second of it, as well as a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of so-called literary fiction, as well as history and theory and philosophy and Harry Potter. And I've done it all "for fun." So my conception of non-reader point of view probably isn't what it could be.

I do write for a living, though what I get paid for is hardly literature. I went to school to study fiction writing and I do some of that as well (though thusfar without great success, material or otherwise). I wonder sometimes if these grand pronouncements about reading take into consideration the vast number of people that call themselves writers. There are ever growing numbers of folks coming out of MFA writing programs and therefore ever-growing numbers of programs built to accommodate those people. And that doesn't account for all the academics and amateurs and self-help gurus etc. etc. who are, as we speak (or write), churning out tome after tome and finding avid readers somewhere among the, if we are to believe reports, increasingly illiterate masses. Or, for that matter, the thousands upon thousands of bloggers of varying skill levels who are tapping out their every thought for the world to see, and wondering whether or not they'll ever be read enough or weird enough or hot enough to get a book deal out of it. Maybe part of the problem is not that we're reading too little, but that we're writing too much. The market is flooded. And as has been pointed out, a lot about what we think we know about internet reading habits is conjecture. The whole business of narrative has become so much more convoluted and interactive. "Author" is becoming less of rarefied title, even as the publicity departments of the major publishing houses spend a small fortune pushing the next next big thing (probably a memoirist with a sordid past).


The internet has allowed anyone with a keyboard and connection to be a writer, to feel (even if irrationally) as if they are being read. And while there has never been a lack of aspiring writers (at least since the invention of the printing press), there has never been quite so much so much to read as there is now.

In the meantime, in the time it took me to write this comment, I could have finished another chapter of "Tristam Shandy," which I will finish one of these days. Maybe when I'm not compelled to write so much.
posted by thivaia at 1:25 PM on February 21, 2008



An example of 'difficult' because it's stultifyingly dull & pointless: Anais Nin: Cities of the Interior.


Also, "A Man Without Qualities" by Robert Musil. And, as much as it pains me to admit it, Marcel Proust. Call me an uncultured yokel if you will, but I read the first volume of "Remembrance of Things Past" and would probably rather endure unnecessary oral surgery than finish that beast.
posted by thivaia at 1:36 PM on February 21, 2008


posted by thivaia at 1:25 PM on February 21 [+] [!]

if you dont mind me prying you away from Mr. Sterne for a moment longer...

you bring up an interesting topic, the now almost 1-1 ratio of producer to consumer. So, from a writers perspective, there is a glut of competition, and as a publisher, there would be a relatively high signal-to-noise, but from a readers perspective, i would think this is a boon.

Your opinions, sir?
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 1:37 PM on February 21, 2008


should be "low signal-to-noise"!
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 1:43 PM on February 21, 2008



Then again, I'm still to start on Gravity's Rainbow.


In the beginning, you're charmed and enamored with this book. You've found a new love! Full of wit and weirdness, making some sort of deep philosophical point, this seems to be your kind of thing.

By the end, you're a broken and frustrated shell of a reader who is no longer confident in his own ability to judge or understand literature at all. Time to rebound to something simpler!

And, as much as it pains me to admit it, Marcel Proust. Call me an uncultured yokel if you will, but I read the first volume of "Remembrance of Things Past" and would probably rather endure unnecessary oral surgery than finish that beast.


I do wish you would give it a chance. It really is an amazing book, especially the crescendo of the final volume.
posted by nasreddin at 1:56 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


although, i had to read 2 volumes of [Anais Nin's] (20+ volume?) diary/journal, which was pretty enjoyable...

Well, her journals are the basis of her reputation. What I've read of them was pretty good. I've got soft spot, ironically, for Delta of Venus & Little Birds, too. And that little novella, what was it called? Under a Glass Bell, or something?

Also, "A Man Without Qualities" by Robert Musil.

Yes, although it had its moments. Overall, though, what on earth was the point? It just went nowhere, in circles. Maybe that made it structurally accurate, in terms of fin de siecle Viennese parlour society...?

In my experience, the people who were reading a lot of books ten years ago are still reading a lot of books now.

I was reminded of that in the recent AskMe about books for kids. I must've read the Moomin & Narnia books dozens of times each, as well as all those boys-own war stories: The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse, The Dam Busters etc. I stopped reading for a while in adolescence - probably too busy with other things - but soon got back into it again & never looked back.

btw: did we kill this thread?

quaaludes will do that.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:57 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think it probably is a boon to the reader. Consider especially reader groups that have been somewhat marginalized by the established publishing community. For example, he stereotypical middle-aged woman who devoured the gothic bodice rippers she buys off a rack in Walgreens may now find a whole world of online communities devoted to say, Anne Rice crossover fanfic, in which she may find novel-length tales of Vampire Lestat seducing Scarlett O'Hara in a time machine controlled by Mr. Rochester's bastard buccaneer brother, Bruce. This, in turns, spurs her to create her own stories. Maybe she didn't like the ending of "Pirate's Passionate Slave." Maybe she rewrites it and posts it on the internet, linking to it from a Forum for Dissatisfied Readers of "Pirate's Passionate Slave," and thereby becomes a micro-celebrity author for a group of writers/readers the traditional publishing industry will not (or legally cannot) recognize.

For those readers, whose tastes run somewhat more highbrow, the number of online journals or print mags with online-only features, may find a wealth of great short fiction (and a few novels, some serialized) at their fingertips. Literary magazines are not money makers. They've been largely institutional by necessity (tied to universities or foundations or wealthy patrons). Most people don't buy them. And printing them is an expensive proposition, even if you do include advertising. Yet these journals are often the only places a short story writer or (dare I say it?) a poet can publish. And publishing is key (especially if you want to stay published), so despite the public's perceived lack of interest, the submission keep rolling in. (I used to work for nationally distributed lit mag, and the number of manila envelopes that arrived in the mail every day was significant, to say the least). It oftentimes makes more sense to take literary magazines to the internet. Less overhead, more space. It's a lot cheaper to pay for a year of web hosting than a 1200+ run at the printing press. And a lot of the stuff out there is really good. You just have to look for it, which is admittedly an irritation from time to time.

Personally, I struggle to read novels off a screen, but I don't reading short fiction. And if the novel is in peril, the short story must really be struggling. Which is pretty funny because that's what most fiction writers write when they're looking to be published.

And I won't even get into poetry, which died, I believe, about century ago, and yet people still write it and a simple google search will probably find you more poetry (from the sublime to the completely fucking godawful) than you'd even want to read.

Sort of a messy to your question. Apologies.
posted by thivaia at 2:07 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


which died, I believe, about century ago,

This should have said: "which died, some would have us believe, about a century ago"
posted by thivaia at 2:10 PM on February 21, 2008


This is a load of crap. It's like saying people aren't buying as many CDs, so no one listens to music anymore and its doom is imminent. The medium has changed, and the publishing industry must adapt or die just like the music and film industries. I read articles, essays, stories and everything else for hour after hour every day... on the Internet, on my laptop. I read books in PDF format, again on my laptop (I've got a fairly large library of PDFs of books by everyone from Ray Bradbury to J.G. Ballard to William S. Burroughs to Thomas Pynchon). When's the last time I read an actual dead-tree book? I don't remember, probably when I was in college in the late 90s-early 00s.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:17 PM on February 21, 2008


Man, I hate PDFs on the screen, and it always annoyed me when I'd get online coursepacks with the printing disabled on PDFs.

But the reason I don't buy books is because I have access to a public library with enough books to keep me reading until I die, even if they don't always have exactly what I want when I want it.

Which does lead me back to my arguably impractical feelings of intellectual property socialism—I feel like we'd be better off with the state paying stipends to most writers in exchange for making their work public domain. Of course, there'd need to be editors too, and all sorts of other apparatus, and concerns about the state encouraging only voices that venerate the state, etc. But on the whole, there are far more authors whose work I love and who I think should be supported than there are funds in my pocket to do so (even as I read their work for free from the library).
posted by klangklangston at 2:55 PM on February 21, 2008


Just got back from the bookstore with three new books. Can't wait to start Iain Bank's new culture novel. Might do that now in fact.
posted by markr at 5:23 PM on February 21, 2008


Arg, what is that apostrophe doing in the middle of my favourite authors name? OMG here comes an s!!!!
posted by markr at 5:24 PM on February 21, 2008


I can't get over the fact that so many of you are actually arguing that readership has not been and is not currently in decline in the US. You can't be serious.

The argument that the study is irrelevant because it places so much emphasis on reading (gasp!) paper books misses the point entirely. It's not just that people today read their novels on the internet and that explains the decline in library loans. It's that what they are reading on the internet are e-mails, Myspace profiles and Youtube comments, not .pdfs or Gutenberg e-texts of Balzac. Published books have something the internet doesn't: professional editing, overarching focus and organization, and the ability to be taken anywhere so one can be perpetually delving in to a subject as time permits, and one's reading isn't limited to the availabilty of a computer and an internet connection. Books have depth and consequently require discipline and attention to be rewarding. In our culture of multiplying distractions, as our discourse becomes more retarded, as our attention spans become shorter, books are the antidote.

This is something that was touched on in the discussion regarding Dana Gioia's Stanford address last year. I'm so tired of the bogus idea that our culture is static, that we are no smarter or dumber, just different than previous generations. People just recite Jay-Z's poetry, not Shakespeare's, which is cool because Shakespearse's no better or worse, just different, right? It seems this sort of postmodernist bullshit really has seeped into the culture at large.

Oh and when I brought up the very same remarks Harold Bloom made about Harry Potter in MeTa, I believe the response was "Harold Bloom eats poo."
posted by inoculatedcities at 6:00 PM on February 21, 2008


well... again, how does one judge jay-z vs willie the shake? can't! why would you? simply because they both exist? now thats post-modern bullshit!

and, hey, tell me if more people read shakespeare now than did while he was alive? eh? am i just trolling here? ;D
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 6:16 PM on February 21, 2008


Eh. It's novels, not literacy itself, that are in kind of danger, and novels are a relatively recent invention. People will debate when the "birth of the novel" really was, but it's a few centuries ago at most. People bemoan the decline of the novel as if it's the crumbling of one of the pillars of Western civilization, but it's really more akin to the gradual loss of interest in tapestry art.
posted by decoherence at 6:30 PM on February 21, 2008


Oh and when I brought up the very same remarks Harold Bloom made about Harry Potter in MeTa, I believe the response was "Harold Bloom eats poo."

Yeah, because that op-ed piece was basically Bloom bitching that King and Rowling weren't writing about Jews from New York jerking off, and pissy that people simply didn't understand that he just has better taste, and should listen to him, dammit.
posted by Snyder at 8:07 PM on February 21, 2008


Which I suppose is what makes him Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and you..um...not, Snyder.
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:28 PM on February 21, 2008


...and Bloom's point was more that adults who weren't even passingly familiar with the great canon of western literature were extolling the virtues of a series of children's books about wizards and monsters as exemplifying the wonders of literary imagination.

Totally bonkers, I know.
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:34 PM on February 21, 2008


Which I suppose is what makes him Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and you..um...not, Snyder.

You do realize that this is a seriously lame argument to make, right? They call it "argumentum ad verecundiam" where I come from.


...and Bloom's point was more that adults who weren't even passingly familiar with the great canon of western literature were extolling the virtues of a series of children's books about wizards and monsters as exemplifying the wonders of literary imagination.

Totally bonkers, I know.


Give me a break. When these Great Books were being written, people attacked them as being vain and modish scribblings that couldn't hold a candle to Plautus and Quintilian.

And stop acting like any critique of "the Canon" is just a postmodern attempt at leveling everything, man. Before you make claims for the transcendental goodness and moral value of the canon, you have to address the very serious questions of hierarchy and prejudice that are attendant upon it, as well as the fact that the concept of canon is itself an attempt to equalize wholly incommensurable things. People in 1614 would have thought that putting Don Quixote on the same list as the Odyssey was a sacrilege akin to comparing Shakespeare and Jay-Z. With the benefit of our historical distance, we pick and choose the works we consider the best (or, rather, what some pompous ass of a Sterling Professor of the Humanities considers the best) and slap a "Canon" label on them; but thereby we lose the real antagonisms and struggles attendant on the whole literary enterprise. Fielding and Richardson are on the same canonical list; but to be a partisan of Fielding in the 18th century meant something wholly different than being a supporter of Richardson.

In short, the Canon is just a simulacrum of real literary history, where all substantive differences between works are supplanted by the common designation "Great Book"; a betrayal of literature.

And you think trotting out this idea is a way of getting Johnny to read? What bullshit. Until I realized that reading a book is something that is driven by the qualities of the book rather than its status as a "classic," nearly every Great Book I read was a painful slog that I went through for no other reason than to put a little check mark next to the list in my head. Needless to say, there are lots of Great Books that I now more or less hate because of that experience; I gained so little from it that I may as well have been reading Stephen King.
A classic is a book everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.
- Mark Twain
posted by nasreddin at 12:01 AM on February 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


Man, I read the comments, went to brush my teeth and came back furious, until I saw nasreddin's post, which perfectly encapsulated everything I should have said but better. The only thing that I will add is this- a simple expression of terms will reveal how ridiculous the idea of a canon IS.
A canon is a selection of works based on literary merit. Literary merit has many definitions, but I think we can generally agree that a work should have some sort of quality that sets it apart from others- let's call it transcendence, in that it transcends the other offerings of the field to some degree. However, things which have this transcendence for SOME people may not have it for OTHERS, thus each person could create their own, entirely personal canon. Since this transcendence is subjective, i.e. nobody agrees on why x is better than y and there's no way to quantify it, we have the difficult decision to make in regards to whose subjective taste is "best," which is again impossible to quantify. Should we defer to authority and Professor Bloom's credentials? But then, many of the works that Harold Bloom and other arbiters have in their canons are works that were derided as slop when they first appeared, by the contemporary equivalent of Harold Bloom!
I am very, very defensive of the novel as a form. By my very nature, I want to say that any decline in novel-reading is a terrible sin against God and man, because the texts that have touched me and changed me more than anything have been novels. I do not personally believe that reading things online is a replacement for, say, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler..., but I acknowledge that this is deeply tied to my own cultural background. Wendy Griswold's Bearing Witness is a long, in-depth work of literary sociology about Nigerian fiction, specifically novels- who produce them, who reads them, what they're about, etc. At the time, Griswold was able to write in such detail because the state of the novel in Nigeria was that she could read every Nigerian novel; there were around 700 of them, mostly very short. Although the authors themselves are very positive about the growth of a reading culture in Nigeria, Griswold ends on a negative note- because the novel entered Nigerian culture at the same time as other forms of media (the magazine, the radio, film, television), it is very hard for the novel to gain an audience. There will, most likely, not be a novel culture in Nigeria comparable to the one in America in the foreseeable future.
The question now is this- is it "postmodern bullshit" to object to the idea that Nigerian culture isn't as good as American? If one holds that culture can be objectively judged, for instance, by the readership of the novel, well, what argument does one give? At most one could find other elements of Nigerian culture that American culture does not have; what, pray tell, is the trade-off? How many indigenous song-forms equal one novel?
posted by 235w103 at 12:33 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Which I suppose is what makes him Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and you..um...not, Snyder.

Nor are you. In this case, we both have the advantage over Bloom, for neither of us have sycophants or reactionaries (or radicals, for that matter,) taking our tastes as authority, and perhaps giving us a big head about it.

In any event, who cares? He is wrong about a great many things as you or I or anyone else.

...and Bloom's point was more that adults who weren't even passingly familiar with the great canon of western literature were extolling the virtues of a series of children's books about wizards and monsters as exemplifying the wonders of literary imagination.

Totally bonkers, I know.


Is it bonkers? You and Bloom seem to feel it's a foregone conclusion, for reasons that, as far as I can tell, are very prosaic. Value in art, including literature, is a malleable construct, and just because some dude with a long title doesn't like something, it don't mean shit. Bloom is the perfect academic reactionary, not because he condemns art he finds fault with, but that when he sees new forms, or witnesses popularity with something that he finds lacking, it's somehow the end of lich'rachure and aht, ironically, indulging in that "School of Resentment" that gets him so het up, with the bonus that his complaint isn't even accurate.
posted by Snyder at 12:55 AM on February 22, 2008


As nasreddin and 235w103 have eloquently stated, the Canon is not an immutable or even provable thing, and that at the time of publication, there was controversy about the quality and longevity about a great many works with similar complaints the Bloom makes now. The Canon is a useful fiction, at best, that there is some great hive-mind that can determine what is truly great, and people like Bloom pretend (or are somehow ignorant) that this is not the case. We don't even need to look very far to see such criticism, for example Nabakov's attacks on Saul Bellow, Eliot, Pound, Mann and Faulkner, all of whom appear in Bloom's canon. Nothing is obvious, and while most of us may not have the language that Nabakov used to decry some Great Books, it doesn't make someone a philistine not find value in them and value in something else.
posted by Snyder at 1:12 AM on February 22, 2008


btw: did we kill this thread?

yes. It wandered through dry recollections of personal reading preferences, hoary defense of/attacks on the Canon, Harold "read like me or be stupid" Bloom, and the same discussion of Kindle (some lik it, some don') that's been going on since it was introduced. the thread didn't stop for air or water and finally expired on Nabokov, known thread killer except for people who read the salacious parts of Lolita.

MeFi readers are not a random sample of the population. I agree with DecemberBoy: for this group, a change in format is nothing, reading is lifeblood, nothing significant changes. But large segments of the rest of the society can hardly read. Remember Pete Rose who claimed he never read a book in his life, including his autobiography. (Wonder if he knows he admitted to betting offenses in the later one.)

One final link: some great columns by Will Okun, an inner city teacher, unfortunately buried within the NY Times' website with its awful search function. This one titled "None" (you have to page down for it) is about how much more engaged his students are reading literature that speaks to their lives, as opposed to Classic Literature. Might be a way to keep children actually interested in reading?

Thread: RIP
posted by cogneuro at 3:13 AM on February 22, 2008


This can serve as a response to nasreddin, 235w103, and Snyder:

You do realize that this is a seriously lame argument to make, right? They call it "argumentum ad verecundiam" where I come from.

Wasn't much of an argument, just a rejoinder to the perceptive "Harold Bloom eats poo" remark. And "they" might call it that were I actually appealing to Bloom's authority as a defense of his position. I was going for the ad hominem against Snyder on that one simply because I can't match his eloquence. Cheeky, I know.

When these Great Books were being written, people attacked them as being vain and modish scribblings that couldn't hold a candle to Plautus and Quintilian...People in 1614 would have thought that putting Don Quixote on the same list as the Odyssey was a sacrilege akin to comparing Shakespeare and Jay-Z.

The implication being that Jay-Z will of course one day be vindicated as a poet on a par with Shakespeare and Pound, right? If that's not the implication, what are you saying other than "One's perception of literary merit varies widely depending on year and place of birth," which is so obvious as to not warrant stating. And of course this tendency comes from the cultural relativism vogue introduced by postmodernist academics in the 1970s. They just threw the baby out with the bathwater. Kids read Maya Angelou but not Chaucer. Kids read Harry Potter then graduate to Stephen King, not Nabokov, DeLillo, or Roth. Is that a good thing?

I gained so little from [reading the classics] that I may as well have been reading Stephen King.

Perhaps you should stick to King then.
posted by inoculatedcities at 6:15 AM on February 22, 2008


Oh, and I can anecdotally confirm the "Harry Potter doesn't lead to more reading" hypothesis.
i can anecdotally refute it: the 11 year old in my house read Potter last year in a sweep--he'd been resisting due to reactionary dismissal of his sister's Pottermania. at the bookstore the other day, i couldn't drag him away from Bill Mauldin's Up Front without having to buy it. and we're about to start the second of Vladimir Voinovich's Ivan Chonkin books. (gotta love a kid who's into obscure Soviet-era absurdist literature. it's only partly our fault; he chose Voinovich from a long list of Russian literature.) he's been asking his father to read him more Gogol, since he liked The Nose.

blame it on the hours available to a homeschooler, but i think it has more to do with reading as household culture than anything else. (his public-schooled sister lives and breaths fantasy novels.)

Why are we surprised when the majority of people today don't want to be intellectuals? It has always been thus.

i think this is true, but it also comes down to time and money. people who do more than sit on their ass when they work have a harder time coming up with the energy for library trips (especially since their hours are so restricted) and reading something that is not pure escapism.

sitting behind the desk at a used bookstore for ten years really gave me a great perch from which to observe people's reading habits, especially since we were regularly open til 11pm. the most unexpected people will have the most high-falutin tastes. but romance/mystery/pop adventure/fantasy readers read more than anyone.
posted by RedEmma at 11:26 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm so tired of the bogus idea that our culture is static, that we are no smarter or dumber, just different than previous generations.

Has anyone in any time period ever argued that the current generation is smarter than previous generations, except for as a refutation of arguments that it is dumber? These debates are never about whether the current generation is exactly the same or not exactly the same as its predecessors. They are about whether it is dumber or not dumber. Being on the "not dumber" side does not imply a belief in a static culture.
posted by transona5 at 11:49 AM on February 22, 2008


The only reason that I miss the canon is that I think it's a nice idea to have a central set of works that everyone who shares a language can reference equally. Oh, and I think that my exposure to folks like Juvenal and Horace (and the collective who wrote the Bible) has greatly increased my appreciation of other works that are central to the American experience, like The Federalist Papers.

On the other hand, I have a deep hatred of Henry James' prose style, so what do I know from canons?
posted by klangklangston at 12:00 PM on February 22, 2008


I tell who I can't fucking stand, that Bukowski bloke.
posted by Artw at 12:44 PM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Has anyone in any time period ever argued that the current generation is smarter than previous generations

Um, yes they have. That time period is now and the data are Flynn Effect, the steady rise in IQs over the past N years.

These debates are never about whether the current generation is exactly the same or not exactly the same as its predecessors. They are about whether it is dumber or not dumber.

Complete, total, and utter BS.
posted by cogneuro at 5:25 PM on February 22, 2008


btw: did we kill this thread?

yes. It wandered through dry recollections of personal reading preferences, hoary defense of/attacks on the Canon, Harold "read like me or be stupid" Bloom, and the same discussion of Kindle (some lik it, some don') that's been going on since it was introduced. the thread didn't stop for air or water and finally expired on Nabokov, known thread killer except for people who read the salacious parts of Lolita.


I'm very sorry your cat died. Are you coping ok?
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:15 PM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm very sorry your cat died. Are you coping ok?

I think he's OK, though it's hard to tell sometimes.

I thought the thread was fun. Just all over the place.
posted by cogneuro at 2:05 AM on February 23, 2008


MetaFilter: Just all over the place.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:05 AM on February 23, 2008


inoculatedcities, you missed the substance of what Snyder was saying. The truth is, the kind of fiction that comes stamped with the "Harold Bloom High-Brow Seal of Approval" is not, in many cases, any different from a Harlequin romance, just targeted to a different market. "Jews from New York jerking off" is, in fact, a literally accurate description of Philip Roth's oeuvre; and while I enjoyed Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral, he has since written enough mind-bogglingly tedious dreck that I, personally, prefer Harry Potter (viz. The Human Stain). Don DeLillo, a third-rate Pynchon knockoff, is not much better.

The implication being that Jay-Z will of course one day be vindicated as a poet on a par with Shakespeare and Pound, right? If that's not the implication, what are you saying other than "One's perception of literary merit varies widely depending on year and place of birth," which is so obvious as to not warrant stating. And of course this tendency comes from the cultural relativism vogue introduced by postmodernist academics in the 1970s. They just threw the baby out with the bathwater. Kids read Maya Angelou but not Chaucer. Kids read Harry Potter then graduate to Stephen King, not Nabokov, DeLillo, or Roth. Is that a good thing?

It seems a little late to be joining the ranks of dreary '80s Culture Wars pundits, don't you think? "The Postmodernists" is such a strawman, it's not even funny. What's a postmodernist? Derrida, usually the first example cited, was skeptical of the canon, but his work relies heavily on close readings of very canonical Western philosophy. Same goes for, say, Foucault.

And I've heard this idiotic argument about "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" too many times. If someone argues that there can be no valid objective criterion for the canon, and that the existing conception of it is fundamentally contaminated by existing cultural power relations, then the burden is on you to address that point. "That's just too radical, man! They should still be reading the stuff I want them to read!" is a whine, not a refutation.

Kids should read whatever they are inclined to read, or whatever they're curious about. Period. Forcing anything else on them is loathsome and pointless authoritarianism. The ones who can benefit from a classical education will seek it out on their own.

Finally, the big bad bogeyman of "cultural relativism" is not the child of the '70s, despite what you and Allan Bloom want to think. Well, maybe the 470s BC...
If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably -after careful considerations of their relative merits- choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.
- Herodotus, Histories
Perhaps you should stick to King then.

I know you are, but what am I?
posted by nasreddin at 9:19 AM on February 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wasn't much of an argument, just a rejoinder to the perceptive "Harold Bloom eats poo" remark. And "they" might call it that were I actually appealing to Bloom's authority as a defense of his position. I was going for the ad hominem against Snyder on that one simply because I can't match his eloquence. Cheeky, I know.

I was giving that Bloom turd in that meta thread exactly the level of thought it deserved.

inoculatedcities, you missed the substance of what Snyder was saying. The truth is, the kind of fiction that comes stamped with the "Harold Bloom High-Brow Seal of Approval" is not, in many cases, any different from a Harlequin romance, just targeted to a different market.

Indeed.

Kids read Harry Potter then graduate to Stephen King, not Nabokov, DeLillo, or Roth. Is that a good thing?

Is that a bad thing? Seems to me your making a hidden assumption here. If they go on to read only King, or nothing at all, has Rowling harmed them? Would they have spontaneously just picked up 'Libra' one day, only that Rowling or King or other low-brow authors have prevented this? Does reading Harry Potter cause some kind of brain damage that prevents readers from appreciating The Approved Classics? You seem to argue thus. If I am mistaken, then you're simply being an insulting snob, elevating your tastes over the hoi polloi.
posted by Snyder at 3:09 PM on February 24, 2008


Only somebody sadly lacking in a proper Classical education would commit the fundamental mistake of inserting a redundant definite article into "the hoi polloi".
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:31 PM on February 24, 2008


It's true. I was educated in the mountains. You should hear how I pronounce DuBois.
posted by Snyder at 6:58 PM on February 24, 2008


* blanches in horror *
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:42 PM on February 24, 2008


*spits, assumes an earthy pose*
posted by Snyder at 8:18 PM on February 24, 2008


Hrm.

*shrug* I still read a book a day. And about 500 messages via RSS. And I code for a living, which I suppose is a form of reading.

I read stuff like "The Art of Computer Programming" by Knuth for fun. And Hofstader is my homeboy. At the other end of the spectrum, I'm just as likely to pick up Mercedes Lackey's works. I just love to read.

However, I had friends in high school who didn't have a single book in the house aside from the required novel for English. Shocking. They had 3 TVs though - and this is before the advent of the internet in my country, so they weren't reading MySpace.
posted by ysabet at 5:32 PM on February 25, 2008


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