Saturday, November 18, 2006

Where Has All the Literature Gone

In an essay in 2000 called "Pushing Envelopes," from Gently into the Land of the Meateaters, James Sallis writes about the small magazines and how they seem to have changed. He says: "Years ago I wrote a piece for American Pen suggesting that, abandoned by mainstream publishing, our literature--even then we'd begun to miss it, you see, and to go looking--had fled to these magazines. Like those remote islands in science fiction upon which prehistoric life has survived into the present. Now I don't know where it's gone. I've looked. I can't find it. If anyone's seen it recently, please call. I'll pay for information, photos, confirmed sightings."

I decided to post this passage for today, partly because of its humor, and partly because it dovetails nicely with my post yesterday about cryptozoology. Perhaps literature has become a mythical land, and we writers are sasquatches who leave only our footprints behind as we pass through it and out of the world of common experience. The passage also calls a question to my mind, not about where "literature" has gone, but about what is happening to "readers."

My son is 19 and doesn't read very often. Few of his friends read, and when they've been over to my house and seen all of my books most of them display looks that combine elements of awe and "damn-what-a-weirdo-this-guy-is." My college students laugh at me when I talk about having so many books that I have to have them organized alphabetically within genres. People in lines at Walgreens look at me funny when I bring a book to read while I'm waiting, despite the fact that they are the ones twiddling their thumbs with boredom.

Is reading valued anymore? I don't mean the need to scan My Space pages or to translate phone text-speech into English, I mean "real" reading, sitting down in a relatively quiet place and working your way through the intricacies of wording, tone, character and dialogue that make up a novel. In a world dominated by TV and movies, people seem less likely to read for entertainment these days, but there is more to reading than just for entertainment, or even for information. Reading really is a way of disciplining the mind, and of opening it to possibilities. On a simple level, reading expands our vocabulary. And human thought is largely verbally based. We think in words inside our heads. If we don't read, how much will our thinking become impoverished? If thinking is impoverished, how much more our lives?

Do the human race a favor and pick up a book to read today.




Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

Interesting post. I just read another post bemoaning the decline in literacy:

To answer your question: I think reading may have been a blip. Let's face it, before the industrial age, literacy was restricted to a small group of people. As more people had leisure time, and as public education flowered, reading for leisure became a strong past time. The past time developed with technology, but technology would also spell its demise. That technology would equally damn public education.

Today the competition for a teen's attention is torn between mp3's, viedogames, internet interaction, peer interaction. I suspect that there will always be readership, but they will wait in a niche.

Sphinx Ink said...

I fear Stewart Sternberg may be right in saying that "reading may have been a blip." I can't imagine a life without books, but I notice more and more people seem to view reading as boring or too time-consuming or as something that merely puts them to sleep. With all the new media competing for attention, reading from a book--even an e-book--is dwindling fast. I predict that those of us who want to be published writers will have to start learning how to write screenplays and teleplays and video gamescripts if we want to become and/or stay published....