Seeing Past the Ivy: Do Literary Mandarins Put Reading At Risk?

Seeing Past the Ivy: Do Literary Mandarins Put Reading At Risk?

Seeing Past the Ivy: Do Literary Mandarins Put Reading At Risk?

Why the commentariat’s response to hand-wringing about “the decline of reading” condescends to the large mass of nonspecialist readers.


“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.

In fact, the essential literary transaction is not between professor and student, or mandarin and mandarin, but writer and reader. Pace James Joyce, who is said to have boasted that Ulysses would keep the professors busy for centuries, writers don’t write for academics or critics; they write for that large mass of nonspecialist readers, the people who like to curl up with a good book–the type of person Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf referred to as “the common reader.” There are good practical reasons for this–however much we like to idealize the act of creation, writers need to make a living, and however much they liked to pretend otherwise, even the highest of high Modernists (James, Conrad, Woolf) wanted to reach a mass audience–but there are also temperamental ones. Writers are neither professors nor critics (not even the ones who take academic appointments or write book reviews), but they are readers. That’s what made them writers in the first place. They share the sensibility of readers, try to put into their novels what readers want to get out of them: character, story, feeling, the thrill of language, the sense of what it feels like to be alive at a certain time and place. “Behind the erratic gunfire of the press,” Woolf wrote, lies “the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally.”

That, for example, is why the canon wars are so utterly beside the point. What keeps a John Milton or a Toni Morrison alive in culture–really alive, not pickled in academic formaldehyde–is not whether they’re taught in college but whether real readers, and above all real writers, continue to find them valuable. Professors and critics have their roles in literary culture, but those roles are secondary, not central. And everyone understands that except professors and critics.

“Reading at Risk” lamented the fact that in 2002 only 96 million American adults engaged in literary reading, the same number as twenty years earlier and more than 10 percent less as a proportion of the population. But there’s another way to look at that statistic. Ninety-six million American adults engage in literary reading! Even if we assume that only 10 percent of those, only 5 percent, are what we’d be willing to call good readers, people who read serious books in a serious way, we’re still left with a group whose size swamps that of the professoriate and commentariat combined. But there are less arbitrary ways to measure the scale of this cohort. Even if your religion obliges you to snort in derision at the mention of book clubs, four words will suffice to name a group whose passion for and commitment to literature equals that of the professors and critics, whose reading practices are every bit as respectable, and whose extent is far greater: high school English teachers.

There is other evidence that the Precious Remnant’s rush to Masada may be a bit hasty. Yes, the proliferation of book clubs, which tend to concentrate on serious contemporary fiction, is a sign of continuing widespread commitment to strenuous reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran, a brilliant and complex meditation on the nature of reading and fiction, spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Personally, I know any number of people who aren’t literary professionals but who maintain active lives as curious, intelligent, passionate readers. Walter Kirn, in a memoir of misspent college years published in The Atlantic, wrote of reconnecting with an old friend who’d stayed at home to work on the family farm: “While I’d been off at Princeton, polishing my act, he’d become a real reader.” I can’t imagine a pithier statement of the difference between cultural credentials and genuine culture. It is only those who fail to understand that difference who miss the fact that real readers are all around them, at every level of education and class.

Unlike Nehring, Nunberg and Mason, Johnson and Woolf did not feel entitled to disdain the common reader, and neither should anyone else. There are a lot of true readers out there, and it is not with the academics and the mandarins that the future of literature in this country lies–nor, for that matter, with the experts and the bureaucrats–but with them.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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