Another fast update from the other day: Charles H. Featherstone writes this in response to the fact that all reading is apparently now suspect by the lovely folks in the U.S. government. Or, at least all the material that’s worth reading. (Yes, I think Mao’s "Little Red Book" is worth reading. If you care about understanding modern Chinese history, anyway. I don’t understand how someone can figure out modern American history without understanding what was happening in China over the same period of time and why. But, perhaps I’m just strange that way.)
Anyway, I thought this article from Michael Masterson was appropriate, seeing as how readers really do keep us in business, at least to some extent. As I went over this one, it occurred to me that very few of the people I know in general really like to read as a recreational activity, other than my immediate family (including my in-laws). So I wonder just how common recreational reading is these days. Reasons that I bother to wonder are phrases I come across from average, every-day folk. Things like:
"Looks like we got a reader here. Hey, fella, what’cha reading for?"
"The boy’s a real bookworm, huh? Better than drugs, I guess."
"Your son’s a writer? Ah, well, I guess they can’t all be brain surgeons, can they?"
(Yes, these are all real quotes, and thanks to the late Bill Hicks, Chris Borecky from the Academy’s Access department, and my late, though not as late as Bill Hicks father respectively for providing them.)
The ugliest part of these sorts of left-handed compliments is that the people who say them are almost never being sarcastic or obnoxious when they do. They’re perfectly honest, well-meaning people who can’t imagine reading being anything but hard, unpleasant work. They can’t imagine that reading for fun can be, well, fun. That’s not necessarily bad . . . lots of people enjoy things that I can’t imagine volunteering for–skydiving comes to mind. Bungee jumping is another. But IME, people don’t generally mock you for skydiving or bungee jumping, they just stare and say "Wow!" or "Why would you do that?" or such like. Even if they don’t understand, they’re likely to respect you for it.
These same people view reading, especially reading for enjoyment, more like a waste of time, or at least time spent doing something less important than, say making money. Now, if you’re all about making a buck (possibly making serious big bucks, which I don’t) and you’re really good at it, that’s great. You’ve got a right to scoff if you’re really talented, and making money is a highly valued skill in this current place and time, so laugh away. If not, well, it’s your preference vs. mine, isn’t it? And maybe my particular preference is to learn a bit more about the world or some subject in it by reading instead of watching the tube or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with the tube (although Neil Postman would say otherwise), but how the average American watches 8 hours of it each day, I’ll never know.
As to MM’s view of the literary crowd, I admit I’ve drifted farther and farther away from that segment of society since I left college. I admit I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in various English classes, but I kept up my writing, which is what I concentrated on at QC. I like to think that it keeps me sharp, even if I have been relying more and more on spell checkers.
Enough rambling. Read, damn you! READ!
The End of Literature: My Embarrassing Evening at the National Book Awards
By Michael Masterson
took the train from Baltimore to New York City to attend the National
Book Awards. SL, head honcho of the book club I belong to (and board
member of the National Book Foundation), invited me to sit at his table
and enjoy the festivities.
was a good evening, although it began poorly. Eager to rub elbows with
the likes of Norman Mailer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joan Didion and E.L.
Doctorow, I was humiliated to discover that I was not included on the
"Gee, I’m sure I was invited," I stammered. "Uhh … SL invited me personally."
other actually invited guests stared at me piteously, the young woman
gave me a serious up and down. My ego, we both knew, was in her hands.
"I guess you can go in," she said.
had an impulse to take her hand and kiss it. Instead, I mustered up
what dignity I could and strode into the reception hall and straight
over to the nearest bar. As the line inched forward, I checked out the
crowd. Most of the faces were middle-aged and unrecognizable. But there
were a few illuminati – William T. Vollmann, Toni Morrison, Jeanne
Birdsall – shining like Hollywood stars, surrounded by a cluster of
National Book Awards is like the Oscars – except that the production
values (as we say in Hollywood) are poorer, the stage and scenery
pitiful, and the nominees awkward, ugly, and intelligent instead of
graceful, beautiful, and stupid.
attendees and press corps are similarly second-class. But who am I to
complain? I was there. I was looking good. And I was in the presence of
some of my literary heroes.
my host as I do, I was sure he’d introduce me to some interesting and
important people. This gave me a mild sense of anxiety that I hoped to
eradicate with either rum, tequila, or a full-bodied red wine. Just as
I’d decided that rum was the way to go (I get talkative but not giddy
when I drink it), they closed the bar and I had to go to the table
saving angel at the registration desk had told me I would be sitting at
Table 35. What she didn’t tell me was that there would be place cards
in front of every seat … but that none of them would have my name on
casually circling the table and realizing I was about to be humiliated
for the second time in one night, SL arrived, dressed in a fancy tuxedo
and flanked by two shockingly young women. He seemed happy to see me
(but was he surprised?) and introduced me as a "best-selling author."
Dumbfounded as to how and why these girls should be here – and taken
aback by how cute they were – I didn’t hear a word SL said when he
introduced them to me.
went off to say hello to someone else, and I found myself standing next
to my two new acquaintances, not knowing what to say to them and
fearful that they would soon discover I was some sort of literary party
"So," I said, "are you in the publishing business?"
They giggled. "No! Don’t be silly. We’re students!"
I said stupidly, trying to figure out what level of student they might
be. (Several years ago – perhaps when I reached 50 – I lost my ability
to determine the age of anyone between 16 and 36. They all look the
same to me. These two young things before me, for example … were they
grad students? College coeds? High school cheerleaders?)
was relieved to find out that they were in law school, but I still
couldn’t understand why they were at the National Book Awards. They
didn’t look literary and they were the youngest people in the ballroom
by at least two decades.
are you a fan of any of the finalists?" I asked, hoping for a clue.
They looked at each other and laughed again. (What was so funny?)
"Gee," the brunette said, "I’ve never even heard of any of them."
know a few of them," the blonde said. "But I’m not a big reader. I
mean, I do read. I read law crap eight hours a day." Her friend nodded
in agreement. "So, you know," she continued, "when I get home, like the
last thing I want to do is crack open another book – especially if it’s
a ‘serious’ book. I mean, like give me a break, right?"
"Right," I said. People were starting to take their seats. Any moment now, I was going to be found out.
what do you do to entertain yourself?" I asked, feeling like a pathetic
incarnation (see Word to the Wise, below) of Humbert Humbert.
looked at each other and laughed. "Oh, we have fun," the blonde said.
"But that’s weekends. School nights we mostly play video games or watch
SL returned and kindly asked me if I wanted to meet the big shots at John Wiley, the company that publishes my books.
"I don’t want to bother them," I said. "They publish hundreds of books every year. I’m sure they don’t even know who I am."
insisted … and since the table was almost fully seated now and my
status as "forgotten guest" was about to be revealed, I agreed and
followed him over to their table.
He introduced me, and it was indeed awkward for a moment. But when he said, "He wrote a book for you, Automatic Wealth, they suddenly brightened and began to treat me in a way that I can only describe as flattering.
They said they loved Automatic Wealth and were very excited about my soon-to-be-released second book, Power & Persuasion.
"We have 10,000 advance orders," they said. "That’s a great start."
walked back to the table, feeling pretty good about things … but
still worried about being found out. Happily, SL had taken note of the
oversight (How did it happen? Was it my fault? Was I imprecise when I
said I’d come?) and had an empty chair waiting for me. Whew!
sat on my right. On my left, was his book publicist, an attractive
61-year-old Manhattan woman who was married to an 81-year-old writer.
"A literary couple," I commented, "doing what you love. That must be very gratifying."
"He would rather that I sell cars," she said. "There’s not much money in publicizing books."
not much money in it, and there may be very little future in it too.
For the first time this year, the National Book Foundation also gave
two lifetime achievement awards: The first, something they called the
Literarian Award, went to Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti
for "outstanding service to the American literary community." And the
second, a medal for "distinguished contribution to American letters,"
went to Norman Mailer.
Both of these guys are old. (Mailer’s first book, The Naked and the Dead,
was published in 1948 … and Ferlinghetti was 37 years old in 1956
when his City Lights Press published Allen Ginsberg’s groundbreaking
poem "Howl.") And both had the same thing to say about the modern world
and literacy: The barbarians are at the gate!
and Ferlinghetti don’t agree on many things, but they both believe that
if modern culture continues where it’s been headed, good books will
soon become an endangered species.
in particular, expressed distress. "It’s a shame in the literary world
today that passion has withered," he said. He labeled the bulk of
current fiction "all too forgettable."
the deeper problem, both Mailer and Ferlinghetti said, is that
publishing itself is endangered because reading is obsolete. When
Mailer speculated that literature will end up a mere "footnote to our
technological and commercial culture," I found myself wondering if he
could be right.
thought about the two "kids" seated across from me. They are very
bright and are going to top schools – and yet they aren’t reading. I
thought about my own three boys, all big readers in high school, who
now seem to prefer DVDs and the Internet.
began an oral tradition of storytelling. During the Middle Ages, that
tradition was supplanted by written poetry. During the Renaissance, the
popularity of poetry was gradually overtaken by theater.
from a historical perspective, it doesn’t seem like we should worry
about the imminent demise of literature. High culture – like the
culture of the barbarian invaders – has found a voice in every era and
there is no reason to think that it won’t do so again in the
recent article on the Academy of American Poets website observed that
poetry is now available in multiple media: books, CDs, and MP3s. Last
year, in fact, downloads of poetry collections increased 40 percent and
sales of poetry on CD rose 7 percent. And director Robert Zemeckis
plans to create a film version of the 8th century epic Beowulf.
Still, for those of us who fell in love with actually reading good books, it’s sad to imagine a world without bookshelves.
after all, provides so many benefits that you can’t easily get from
other media. (I’m speaking about reading literature here, not magazines
or trashy novels.)
1. Reading improves your vocabulary. And, as I pointed out in Message #1351, having more words at your command makes you sound smarter and can impact your success.
2. Reading makes you smarter in a way that you can’t get smarter by watching videos.
Reading is soothing and can give you relief from the pressures of your
job, the demands of your family, and the drone of the television.
According to a Swiss study, the rhythms of reading out loud –
especially when reciting rhymed or metric verse – can actually slow
your breathing and make you feel calmer.
4. Reading broadens your capacity for feeling. Whether you cry at The Unbearable Lightness of Being , grit your teeth at the selfishness of Madame Bovary, or laugh at the absurdity of Candide, reading can teach you new ways to tap into your own emotions.
5. Reading gives you a fresh view of the world. Pride and Prejudice instructs you in 18th century English manners. The Bluest Eye illuminates racial shame. As I Lay Dying exposes you to new ways of speaking. And The Catcher in the Rye allows you to look through the eyes of an adolescent.
is, in short, essential for success. Yes, there are rich, powerful, and
famous people who are essentially illiterate – but who wants to be like
Okay, you may want to be as rich as they are … but to act like they do? To speak like they do?
of the people you admire – the people you respect and look up to. If
you are like me, there are two qualities that impress you: a generous
heart … and a powerful mind.
Reading can help you have both.