The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Library of Congress, in conjunction with the Children’s book Council, has appointed Jon Scieszka as its first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Scieszka is the author of a number of very enjoyable children’s books, most notably The Stinky Cheeseman. My son liked it just for the title. We don’t remember a great deal about the content. I also like Scieszka’s emphasis on getting boys to read through his website, guyread.com, the gendered status of reading being another general concern of mine
I’m intrigued by two aspects of this announcement. First, Librarian of Congress James Billington suggested in his remarks about the appointment that “We think it’s very important to have an evangelist for reading.” In the official news release from the LOC, Billington goes on to say
“Jon Scieszka will be an articulate emissary, promoting reading and literature among young people, which are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society.”
Robin Adelson, executive director at Children’s Book Council, added,
“Jon Scieszka’s platform will spotlight the diversity and breadth of children’s literature available today and in so doing present a solution to what can be done to change the state of reading in this country.”
The metaphors are mixed, but all of them are fascinating. If we need a reading evangelist, it must be the case that the country as a whole is among the unwashed and unregenerate, that the gospel of reading comes to us from afar. We have seen and heard, but not understood. Reading, in fact, can save us. Reading is also in need of an emissary to help the non-reader understand it’s excellencies. Billington has something of a misplaced metaphor since I would assume that everyone agrees that young people are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society. I’m not sure, though, that everyone agrees that reading and literature are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society.
Will reading and literature, reading in general and reading literature in particular, heal us of all our woes? My being lurches to say “Amen” and raise my hands in testimony to the gospel of literary reading; this is, after all, the great rationale for the study of literature since at least Matthew Arnold. Whether it’s really true or not is another question. Human cultures have existed quite well without written literature, and fascist societies exhibited widespread literacy. But I do think it’s an intriguing question as to whether broad-based democracies can exist without effective levels of literacy. Something that doesn’t leave us at the mercy of the soundbite. In societies that have had print, reading and writing have been primarily associated with the ruling classes. The development of democracy, the widespread availability of print media, and rising levels of literacy have tended to go hand in hand, even if the connections are accidental rather than essential. (Widespread literacy didn’t prevent fascism, for instance, though I’ve seen some interesting discussions on the primary role of radio—an oral/aural new media of the day—in the rise of Nazism).
Still, Billington and Adelson draw on a rhetoric that seems pretty common to me in recent responses to the “reading crisis.” Reading will make us better. Though what better means is sometimes left to the vagueness of terms like “health” and “creativity.” Interestingly, reading hasn’t always enjoyed this healthy reputation. There’s a long tradition in literature of suspicion of the health effects provoked by reading. The first great Western novel, Don Quixote, is primarily about how excessive reading deranges the mind. Women who read too much are repeatedly driven to adultery and suicide. Men who read too much become soft and effeminate or lazy and irresponsible. Or demonically possessed. Or murderous. Authors’ revenge on their imperious audience, perhaps?
Now, however, reading is right up there with health club memberships and anti-smoking campaigns. If things get much worse, I suspect we will have Senate inquiries with testimony from Madonna and Angelina Jolie on the deleterious effects of non-reading.
The other issue that interests me about this new program is that it is sponsored by Cheerios. I could go on about the fact that, if a public entity like the Library of Congress is truly convinced that reading will save us, shouldn’t we devote public funds to the effort and not leave it in the hands of General Mills. At least it’s not being sponsored by Lucky Charms, I guess.
But that’s another subject, my real interest here is that the named culprits for our so-called reading crisis are manifold: television, the internet, poor parenting, poor teaching, etcetera. One culprit regularly left out is….corporate America. Or, contemporary global capitalism more generally. I don’t think I want to go the orthodox Marxist route and suggest that an ignorant and unreading labor force serves the purposes of international corporations. (Though, hey, it is convenient, isn’t it?)
I’m more interested in the ways in which the shape of our economy has simply changed the time available for reading. The average work week has ballooned to 47 hours per worker, lower than the industrial workers of the nineteenth century but significantly higher than three decades ago when the NEA first started getting worried about the state of reading. In addition, the average American is now spending nearly an hour a day commuting to and from work. Finally, this figure now includes 60 per cent of women, who have always made up the highest percentage of readers. Only 19% of women were in the paid labor force in 1900.
Thus, even though the average work week in 1900 was longer at 50+ hours (lower, however, for educated white collar workers), the average family is now spending a great deal more time in the work place with relatively less time for anything—political and civic participation, reading, much less necessary housework like washing dishes and clothes, fixing the gutters and mowing the lawn.
I’m surprised, frankly, that we don’t have a crisis in lawn care. Though, to be honest, we do have a crisis in lawn care at my house, and I’m not sure it has anything to do with the work week.
The shape of contemporary corporate capitalism is driven by the need for efficiencies and documentable productivity. This is true even of life in higher education—which used to be a fairly sleepy affair designed to give marginally paid professors the time to read and think. No longer. Public universities gauge productivity by how many pages you publish in which prestigious journals. Or how many student units you are able to teach per course hour. No wonder we have so many studies on Madonna and American Idol. Easier to watch TV. Reading Don Quixote, much less the latest novel, just to read doesn’t fit the system.
If someone could prove that reading Don Quixote would improve the corporate bottom line, I’m sure we’d all be given afternoon breaks and required to read. Corporations already sponsor gyms and health club memberships to keep down the costs of health insurance. If reading is so good for us, let’s ask that businesses provide us all with reading rooms and give us new forty-five minute breaks each day to catch up on our reading.
Now there’s an idea whose time has come. I think I’ll preach its gospel.
I love this picture of Jon Scieszka, but does this look like the picture of a man you’d trust your children with in the stacks of a library?