I’ve been reading the winter issue of n+1. Smart people, smart and funny writing. I envy their youth. This issue’s take on The Intellectual Situation—a regular feature that’s a rambling blog-like essay more or less focused on a topic, or at least a loosely related series of themes, or united by a sort-of narrative—focused on the reading situation, among other things, noting especially the sudden prevalence of how-to books devoted to reading.
“Self help-style (sic) books about reading reappeared on the publishing scene in the last halcyon days of “Third Way” capitalism—when the world was embracing a kinder, gentler, freemarket as a solution to all our problems, including the problem of universal education. With that memorable 1999 title, How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom completed his transformation from the vatic close reader of The Anxiety of Influence to a lonely crusader against declining standards. In fact, he wasn’t so lonely: Bloom was preceded, barely, by cultural literacy proponent E.D. Hirsch in How to Read a Poem (19999), and he’s been followed, in recent years, by a number of tenured professors and established writers, and even the odd celebrity with time on his hands: there’s How Novels Work, How to Read Like a Writer, the deliberately parodic Ode Less Traveled, Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series, which followed Penguin’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare and American Literature. Most of these now originate in Britain. Even radical-socialist Terry Eagleton has one called, er, How to Read a Poem.”
They mention, too, John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide, and the grandfather of this genre, Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. Even then, n+1’s is a necessarily selective list. Others include How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Reading Like a Writer and Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I’ve just started the latest hot read on reading—or rather non-reading—How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, which is a book about, among other things, how to not read a book. I would talk about it, but I haven’t read it yet. I did read the review.
Close cousin to these is a veritably new genre of literary non-fiction that I call the reading memoir, books by baby-boomers narrating the wonders of the books we are gradually leaving behind. Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone I’m Reading. Anna Quindlen’s testimonial How Reading Changed My Life. The industry that is Michael Dirda.
Indeed, too many to name them all, and these are merely the visible edge of a great tsunami of books on reading over the past twenty years. In fact, a quick WorldCat search shows 70,000 catalogued items published on the subject of reading from 1967-1987. Since 1987 we’ve been enlightened by approximately 105,000 new investigations of our crisis. With the publication of the NEA’s latest report, I’m sure we’ll see another 25,000 or so before the decade is out. I hope my own is among them.
This says nothing about the several million blog pages of persons chronicling their own reading habits, experiences, revelations, etcetera ad nauseum. (Who? Me, you say?) Reading is an industry of its own. Indeed, without the sea of books on reading, one suspects that the crisis in the publishing industry would be much more well-advanced. Anxious readers buy more and more and read less and less in the interest of understanding their own demise. Why, Oh Why?
The easy answer, and only one I have, is that this flurry of reading about reading is symptomatic of the very death of the book that we are gradually experiencing. In Verdi’s La Traviata, Violetta, dying of consumption, summons a last illusion of strength on the fantasy of her own resurrection. Like the diva dying on her sick bed, book culture summons a last illusion of strength by reading about it’s own demise. Reading lists are like bucket lists: great things to do before I die, or before books do. This is too easy, but it does seem to me that how-to books appear at those moments when a once dominant cultural practice moves from being necessity to option. Gardening manuals only make sense in a world where people don’t know how to and don’t have to grow their own food. Books on how to make a cabinet or how to wire a house are only for those who no longer learn it as a matter of course from a father or the guy next door. My favorite among books of this ilk is The Dangerous Book for Boys, which guards against the loss of our boyish past and our electronic future by teaching boys how to play…marbles. Reading books about reading is a sign of reading (at least reading books) having become a practice of clubs rather than a necessity of living. Some day perhaps courses in reading a novel will be offered at my local YMCA along with crocheting and scrap-booking. Oh, wait. They already are.
n+1 mocks the how-to books, rightly it seems to me. But their solution borders on the bizarre.
So maybe—is this a crazy idea?—reading needs to be taught, and taught well, rather than sold. Instead of writing more well-intentioned books, why don’t academics intervene directly in secondary school education? Let’s lend them out to state schools, public schools, and community colleges to teach for a few weeks a year. Morally, this is the equivalent of pro bono work in the legal profession. Let’s reward junior professors for community teaching rather than for publishing articles in academic journals. An extra sabbatical year could be offered, during which professors would work closely with young readers. Maybe this experience could actually change the way intellectuals think about literature. If a certain degree of literacy and appreciation for htte complexity of great books (or just good novels) is as necessary for a healthy and free society as we’ve often heard or said it is, then maybe the only way (not the “Third Way”) forward is a Maoist –style cultural revolution in reverse: “INTELLECTUALS: INTO THE SCHOOLS!”
Um…Ok, I appreciate the idealism. I really do. But…um…could it be any more obvious that the folks at n+1 only hang out with people who have gone to Ivy League or Ivy league wanna-bes, and went to the kind of high schools that got them in there. Or that they are too young to have kids in the secondary schools? Or that they are fundamentally out of touch with the economics of higher education. An EXTRA SABBATICAL YEAR??? I guess they’re maybe thinking that the moneyed interests at Harvard and Yale–the only places that can really afford extra sabbatical year–are going to come riding to our rescue. Chances are the cure would kill us. Maybe they could imagine Harold Bloom coming to their high schools to teach reading, but if Harold Bloom had come to my high school I would have been shooting rubber bands at his rather expansive posterior. Or falling asleep. Most academics have a hard time making themselves understood to one another, and we’re going to put them in high schools to teach 16 year olds to love to read???
Don’t get me wrong, I teach at a college where the focus is primarily on teaching, and I think that balance is about right. And a colleague runs a program at Penn State that gets grad students into the schools to do just this kind of thing with reading and writing. My own college runs continuing education programs for teachers to get them in touch with literary and other disciplines once again. We clearly need more connections between the colleges and the high schools, both so high schools can better prepare kids for what they’ll face in college and to help colleges understand where their freshmen are coming from. But let’s respect the expertise of teaching that a secondary school teacher has developed, and let’s help them as much as we possibly can.
Despite the naivete, n+1 is one of the best things going. Maybe because of the naivete. They haven’t yet joined those of us who are old and jaded by, among other things, too much reading.