William Michael Harnett, To This Favour, 1879
One evening not long ago, my fifteen-year-old son, Noah, told me that literature was dead. We were at the dinner table, discussing The Great Gatsby, which he was reading for a ninth-grade humanities class. Part of the class structure involved annotation, which Noah detested; it kept pulling him out of the story to stop every few lines and make a note, mark a citation, to demonstrate that he’d been paying attention to what he read. “It would be so much easier if they’d let me read it,” he lamented, and listening to him, I couldn’t help but recall my own classroom experiences, the endless scansion of poetry, the sentence diagramming, the excavation of metaphor and form. I remembered reading, in junior high school, Lord of the Flies—a novel Noah had read (and loved) at summer camp, writing to me in a Facebook message that it was “seriously messed up”—and thinking, as my teacher detailed the symbolic structure, finding hidden nuance in literally every sentence, that what she was saying was impossible. How, I wondered, could William Golding have seeded his narrative so consciously and still have managed to write? How could he have kept track of it all? Even then, I knew I wanted to be a writer, had begun to read with an eye toward how a book or story was built, and if this was what it took, this overriding sense of consciousness, then I would never be smart enough.
Now, I recognize this as one of the fallacies of teaching literature in the classroom, the need to seek a reckoning with everything, to imagine a framework, a rubric, in which each little piece makes sense. Literature—at least the literature to which I respond—doesn’t work that way; it is conscious, yes, but with room for serendipity, a delicate balance between craft and art. This is why it’s often difficult for writers to talk about their process, because the connections, the flow of storytelling, remain mysterious even to them. “I have to say that, for me, it evolved spontaneously. I didn’t have any plan,” Philip Roth once said of a scene in his 2006 novel Everyman, and if such a revelation can be frustrating to those who want to see the trick, the magic behind the magic, it is the only answer for a writer, who works for reasons that are, at their essence, the opposite of schematic: emotional, murky, not wholly identifiable—at least, if the writing’s any good. That kind of writing, though, is difficult to teach, leaving us with scansion, annotation, all that sound and fury, a buzz of explication that obscures the elusive heartbeat of a book.
For Noah, I should say, this was not the issue—not on those terms, anyway. He merely wanted to finish the assignment so he could move on to something he preferred. As he is the first to admit, he is not a reader, which is to say that, unlike me, he does not frame the world through books. He reads when it moves him, but this is hardly constant; like many of his friends, his inner life is entwined within the circuits of his laptop, its electronic speed and hum. He was unmoved by my argument that The Great Gatsby was a terrific book; yeah, yeah, yeah, his hooded eyes seemed to tell me, that’s what you always say. He was unmoved by my vague noises about Fitzgerald and modernity, by the notion that among the peculiar tensions of reading the novel now, as opposed to when it first came out, is an inevitable double vision, which suggests both how much and how little the society has changed. He was unmoved by my observation that, whatever else it might be, The Great Gatsby had been, and remains, a piece of popular fiction, defining its era in a way a novel would be hard-pressed to do today.
This is the conundrum, the gorilla in the midst of any conversation about literature in contemporary culture, the question of dilution and refraction, of whether and how books matter, of the impact they can have. We talk about the need to read, about reading at risk, about reluctant readers (mostly preadolescent and adolescent boys such as Noah), but we seem unwilling to confront the fallout of one simple observation: literature doesn’t, can’t, have the influence it once did. For Kurt Vonnegut, the writer who made me want to be a writer, the culprit was television. “When I started out,” he recalled in 1997, “it was possible to make a living as a freelance writer of fiction, and live out of your mailbox, because it was still the golden age of magazines, and it looked as though that could go on forever … Then television, with no malice whatsoever—just a better buy for advertisers—knocked the magazines out of business.” For new media reactionaries such as Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen, the problem is technology, the endless distractions of the internet, the breakdown of authority in an age of blogs and Twitter, the collapse of narrative in a hyperlinked, multi-networked world. What this argument overlooks, of course, is that literary culture as we know it was the product of a technological revolution, one that began with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. We take books and mass literacy for granted, but in reality, they are a recent iteration, going back not even a millennium. Less than four hundred years ago—barely a century and a half after Gutenberg—John Milton could still pride himself without exaggeration on having read every book then available, the entire history of written thought accessible to a single mind. When I was in college, a friend and I worked on a short film, never finished, in which Milton somehow found himself brought forward in time to lower Manhattan’s Strand bookstore, where the sheer volume of titles (“18 Miles of Books” is the store’s slogan) provoked a kind of mental overload, causing him to run screaming from the store out into Broadway, only to be struck down by a New York City bus.
Milton (the real one, anyway) was part of a lineage, a conversation, in which books—indeed, print itself— made a difference in the world. The same might be said of Thomas Paine, who in January 1776 published Common Sense as an anonymous pamphlet and in so doing lighted the fuse of the American Revolution. Colonial America was a hotbed of print insurrectionism, with an active pamphlet culture that I imagine as the blogosphere of its day. Here we have another refutation to the anti-technology reactionaries, since one reason for print’s primacy was that it was on the technological cutting edge. Like the blogs they resemble, most pamphlets came and went, selling a few hundred copies, speaking to a self-selected audience. Common Sense, on the other hand, became a colonial bestseller, racking up sales of 150,000; it was also widely disseminated and read aloud, which exposed it to hundreds of thousands more. The work was so influential that Thomas Jefferson used it as a template when he sat down a few months later to write the Declaration of Independence, distilling many of Paine’s ideas (the natural dignity of humanity, the right to self- determination) in both content and form.
Given this level of saturation, it’s not hard to make a case for Common Sense as the most important book ever published in America, but from the vantage point of the present, it raises questions that are less easily resolved. Could a book, any book, have this kind of impact in contemporary society? What about a movie or a website? Yes, the Daily Kos and FiveThirtyEight.com attracted devoted and obsessive traffic in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, but the percentages (and the effect) were nowhere near what Paine achieved. Even Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, released barely six months before the 2004 election to packed theaters and impassioned public debate, came and went in the figurative blink of an eye. Partly, that’s because Moore is a propagandist and Paine a philosopher; the key to Common Sense is the elegance of its argument, the way it balances polemic and persuasion, addressing those on both sides of the independence issue, always careful to seek common ground. Yet equally important is the speed and fragmentation of our public conversation, which quickly moved along to Swift Boats and other issues, leaving Moore behind. By November, Fahrenheit 9/11 was little more than an afterthought, and six years later, if we remember it at all, it’s as a dated artifact, a project whose shelf life did not even last as long as the election it sought to change.
This, in an elliptical way, is what Noah was getting at. How do things stick to us in a culture where information and ideas are up so quickly that we have no time to assess one before another takes its place? How does reading maintain its hold on our imagination, or is that question even worth asking anymore? Noah may not be a reader, but he is hardly immune to the charms of a lovely sentence; a few weeks after our conversation at the dinner table, he told me he had finished The Great Gatsby and that the last few chapters had featured the most beautiful writing he’d ever read. “Yes, of course,” I told him, pleased at the observation, but I couldn’t help thinking back to our earlier talk about the novel, which had ended with Noah standing up and saying, in a tone as blunt as a lance thrust: “This is why no one reads anymore.”
“What?” I said. He was back to talking about the annotation, but there was something else, a subtext to his words.
“This is why reading is over. None of my friends like it. Nobody wants to do it anymore.”
He held my gaze for a long moment, as if challenging me to make a counterargument. Briefly, I thought about responding, but there was nothing to say. On the one hand, this was the primal conflict, my son declaring his independence, telling me that reading didn’t matter in a room full of books, my books, thousands of them on the shelves. I almost asked for a towel to clean up the blood.
And yet, for all that I could recognize the dynamic, I found myself unsettled in another way. Yes, Noah was reacting; yes, he was putting me in my place. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that as he left the room, I would be struck by a disturbing realization, one that spoke to the essence of who I was. Literature is dead, Noah had told me, this is why reading is over. And indeed, I saw now with the force of revelation, I could not say that he was wrong.
David L. Ulin is a critic, essayist, editor, and novelist. He is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the California Book Award and has been shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. His writing has appeared in the LA Times (where he spent ten years as book editor and book critic), the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Zyzzyva, Columbia Journalism Review, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. He is assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California.
© 2018 By David Ulin. All rights reserved. Excerpted from The Lost Art of Reading by permission of Sasquatch Books.
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