To Read or Not to Read

I seem to be reading a lot lately about how people don’t read anymore, especially these young people. On my recent flights, there sure seemed to be a lot of people reading books, but maybe airline travel is restricted to the especially literate, though that wouldn’t explain the four hours I once had to spend listening to the woman next to me extol the virtues of Boyd’s Bears as she traveled to a Boyd’s Bears convention. And you thought library conventions were bad.

It’s a good thing I’m not worried about the kids not reading today, because I’m putting together my syllabus for my writing seminar, which begins all too soon. The reading list isn’t especially heavy in terms of page count. I always considered such courses torture because I’m such a slow reader. In a Victorian novel course I took in graduate school, I’m not sure I finished any of the novels except The Mill on the Floss, and that’s because I had to present on it. It seemed I’d get a third of the way through one of Dickens’ interminable tomes and we’d start on yet another one. Even The Mill on the Floss I had to read so quickly I remember almost nothing about it. I think someone dies.

So the pages are relatively small in number, but dense, especially the Rawls. If you’ve ever read any Rawls (John, not Lou), then you know what a tedious writer he can be. It’s a pity someone so brilliant couldn’t write more gracefully. Still, if the prevailing views of students are correct, whatever are we to do with them? Just now I was trying to decide between a Philip Pettit or a Quentin Skinner essay to represent the republican position. I decided on both, but if these kids today don’t read, perhaps I should just teach neither. Perhaps we should abandon research and writing altogether. Why bother if the kids are so incorrigibly dumb?

From a professor at Illinois who’d obviously been around a while even then I heard about some of the protesting hippie teaching assistants teaching rhetoric in the late sixties. Instead of essays, they’d have the students make collages and such. Maybe we could abandon reading and writing completely and just do that in class. Collages have the advantage not only of looking prettier than essays, they’re also much easier to grade while stoned.

The touchstone of the new aliteracy for some seems to be that the kids today aren’t reading literature anymore. Capital L Literature apparently used to be important to the culture, and everyone who was anyone ran around discussing T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg while drinking cocktails or smoking pot (respectively), or ruminating on the supposed complexities of Beckett or Sartre. The kids just don’t do this anymore, and it bothers some people.

Let’s hope the students get a smattering of great literature during their college years, but otherwise, is it so bad if they don’t read novels for fun? Some of them no doubt will go on to be the educated intellectual types who will lament for the future because the next generation will be so ill read. But if most of them grow up reading nothing more substantial than news or blogs or the occasional magazine, will they be that much different from how most people have always been? Did we ever really live through some literary golden age when masses of people read more not because it was what they wanted to do but because there wasn’t much else to do.

The nineteenth century in England and America seemed to be a relatively literate time, but was there not perhaps a large difference between those who for enjoyment read the John Stuart Mill or Matthew Arnold and those who read the serial installments of The Old Curiosity Shop and flocked to Dickens’ celebrity tours of America? When literature was entertainment, were we any better off as a society? Now that literature is less popular, doesn’t there still seem to be a lot of reading going on? And is the person who daily consumes another genre novel somehow more critical and analytical than the rest of us, more fit to be a citizen than those who skim headlines on Google News or read political blogs?

Perhaps, though, the curmudgeons and naysayers are correct, and somehow this year the students will be worse than they were last year. The dumbest generation goes to college. Apparently I’m not even protected here in my ivy league ivory tower, since if William Deresiewicz is to be believed, one of the disadvantages of an elite education is that it is “profoundly anti-intellectual,” and it also offers too many temptations to mediocrity.

I hope I don’t end up with all the mediocre, profoundly anti-intellectual students in my class. No use fretting I suppose, because there’s not much I can do about it anyway.

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