“Reading at Risk,” the 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts on the state of reading in the United States, along with “To Read or Not to Read,” the NEA’s 2007 follow-up study, have provoked a frenzy of hand-wringing about the decline of serious reading. Educators, experts and assorted cultural bureaucrats have lined up to pronounce upon the horrors of the Internet, the deplorable state of the American attention span and the urgent need to advise people about the salvific virtues of the printed page. But while the reaction to the reports has undoubtedly been pious, self-important and naïve, not to mention predictable, equally revealing, though not much commented on, has been the reaction to the reaction.
Cristina Nehring, writing in the New York Times Book Review, lampooned the self-congratulation she claims the recent reading campaigns have encouraged among book lovers. Spraying allusions to Seneca, Montaigne, Hazlitt and Emerson like so much air freshener, she instructed us that “there are two very different ways to use books. One is to provoke our own judgments, and the other, by far the more common, is to make such conclusions unnecessary.” In an essay on NPR’s Fresh Air, Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg announced that “the people who’ve been lost to novel-reading aren’t the devotees of Dostoyevsky or Faulkner. They’re the people who used to read a couple of romances or thrillers a year”–a conclusion arrived at, no doubt, by telepathy. In any case, “curling up with a good book” is “self-absorbed, escapist and regressive,” whether you’re curling up with “Virginia Woolf or Nero Wolfe.” In a letter to Harper’s, literary critic Wyatt Mason argued that books have always been a minority interest. True enough, but how small a minority? “Like playing competitive tennis at a world-class level or composing polyphonic music in one’s mind, reading a book is…a special way of being alive.” That would put the number of true readers at about a hundred.
It’s official then. It doesn’t matter if the great unwashed are reading or not, because they don’t know how to read anyway. They should leave the self-congratulation to those who deserve it. It’s not hard to see where this attitude comes from. It’s a version of the Modernist notion of the coterie: superior art, superior people. The idea that reading serves anything so bourgeois as a moral or civic purpose, and should thus be encouraged among the hoi polloi, is so, well–middlebrow. What next, Man of La Mancha? No better way to certify your own highbrow credentials than by turning up your nose at it.
But it’s not only literary mandarins who see themselves as the Last of the Readers. Having just spent ten years in the Yale English department, I can attest that the same conceit prevails in academia, or at least its loftier reaches. There, however, it is less a conscious attitude than a structural condition. The existence of a reading public, a large mass of adults who read because they want to, simply never crosses anyone’s mind. If it did, it would be profoundly disturbing, because it would mean that people are reading without professional supervision, and that can’t be any good. As far as the academy is concerned, the literary transaction consists of a teacher, a student and a book, preferably an old one. That’s why the presence of creative writers within literature departments is so unsettling, rather like the intrusion of Odysseus in the kingdom of the shades. One of my former colleagues, an esteemed scholar of nineteenth-century fiction, once told me that, as far as he was concerned, all the books that were worth reading had already been written. He wouldn’t mind if people just stopped writing altogether. One might suppose that the goal of undergraduate teaching is to produce lifelong readers, precisely the sort of adults who read because they want to. It isn’t; it is to produce graduate students. In other words, to reproduce the profession itself.