Who’s Reading Now? Or, Crises Ad Nauseum

Trolling around The New York Times I came across this gem.

Ok, so only someone thinking about writing a book on reading would think it’s a gem, but I’ve got to write about something today. Everything’s material.

“The measure of all worth seems to be the question, “does it pay?” The attitude of the vast majority of the American people is distinctly inimical to the pursuit of culture for its own sake, and there are few men who read habitually after leaving college, simply because they are compelled to devote all their time and energies to the making of money in order that they may be regarded as of importance among their fellow-men. “How much is he worth?” That is the question by which the majority of people decide the value of a man….

“[As] long as the money-making ability of a man is taken as the true measure of his worth (and there are many who argue earnestly that it should be,) reading for culture, which is the highest form of reading, will be at a discount, whether among college-bred men or others. Nevertheless we think it highly probably that if an investigation could be made with accuracy, it would be found that the percentage of men who read entirely aside from the professional demands and purely for the sake of culture, would be found to be larger among university men than others.”

The language probably betrays that this isn’t the NEA’s study on the decline of reading, though it’s equally as earnest. It’s from 1900, an article titled “How Reading Does Not Pay” responding to and extending an earlier article that recounted the surprising decline of reading by undergraduates at Princeton University. Of course, all things are relative. I traced down the earlier article, “Reading of University Men,” and it appears that in 1900 20 percent of male Princetonians–the only kind of Princetonians there were, actually–had read Sartor Resartus, 30 percent had read Boswell’s Life of Johnson and nearly 80 percent had read Milton’s Paradise Lost.

I include the links to Project Gutenberg because…well…who knows if anyone reads these works anymore. I did as an English major two and a half decades ago, but most of the students in our department graduate without having read these particular texts and many others that an earlier generation considered necessary. Necessary for what, I leave unstated.

I would mostly be glad if I could just get 80% of the students at my college to read a newspaper, online or no. I did a survey of reading at my college as part of a class a couple of years ago and found that about a 1/3 of the students read even one book a year that was not assigned for a course. Survey’s being what they are, I suspect the statistics are inflated.

We could probably argue about what this suggests about the reality of our own “reading crisis,” such as it is. Digital utopians would, I know, point feverishly to the fact that students now spend a lot of time reading, and writing! New forms of literacy. To which I might say, “Yes, they punch text messages into their 2 by 3 inch phone screens and cackle maniacally at the latest picture with two sentence caption posted to their Facebook pages.” This is a little like giving folks credit for using the English language. Ok, I’m cranky, but also half serious. I do agree with the thesis that a lot of what passes for writing and reading on the web is more like conversation than writing–with all the good and bad things that implies. I don’t think writing has ever been simply a substitution for talking, and the forms of mental and imaginative engagement required by older forms of reading are significantly different than those necessary for conversation.

Still, I’m a little more interested in the rhetoric of concern that motivates discussions about reading. I’m struck by both the familiar and the distinctive flavors of this particular reading crisis at the turn of the last century. On the one hand the lamentation of reading’s decline, and the sense of some relationship between reading and cultural leadership. Readers are rightfully the big men on the Princeton campus aren’t they, these articles seem to assume, just as, in the NEA’s vision at least, Readers are the movers and shakers and thinkers we need to be competitive in the global economy.

Readers as Big Men on campus? Well, here is the flavor of difference. I doubt this is true at Princeton anymore, if it was then. Indeed, the account registers mostly the fear that this isn’t the case, that the rightful place of the cultivated man has been diminished. And what counts as a big man on campus is, more and more, the very capacity to make money that these late Victorians think of as polluting the superior man who should read only for culture, a more high-faluting version of the NEA’s concern with reading for pleasure. Mostly, in fact, our own reading crises are put in the explicit language of political and economic profits and deficits. The failure to read will damage the economy and damage our civic life. The triumph of business in higher education is nowhere more clearly registered than in our efforts to justify reading on the basis that it will help create better middle level managers. The idea of reading for culture alone is not even on the radar, except perhaps in its professionalized version in the mind of Stanley Fish.

More tomorrow on other varieties of reading crises I’ve stumbled over the last couple of days. Sometimes these are seized on by digital utopians as evidence that the NEA is crying wolf. I think they raise a more interesting question. Why is reading always in crisis? And how do the shape of these crises–which I’m willing to say are to a very large degree creations of discourse–and the rhetorical forms through which they are articulated suggest changing cultural values? And why do we choose to narrate cultural crises through crises in reading.

This isn’t at all intuitive to me. The terms change, the cultural positions morph and realign, but what is it about reading that leads folks to assume repeatedly and ad nauseum that we are in a crisis. We seem to have reading crises with the approximate frequency of menstrual cycles. What is it about the nature of reading that leads us to fret over its fragility?

Articles Cited:

How Reading Does Not Pay
New York Times. June 16, 1900
Section: SATURDAY REVIEW OF BOOKS AND ART, Page BR16, 622 words

June 2, 1900
Section: The New York Times SATURDAY REVIEW OF BOOKS AND ART, Page BR8, 641 words

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