Sacred texts

Sacred texts

: I have a confession: I hardly read books anymore.

Well, I read them. But I rarely finish them. I try. I wander the bookstores as I always did, but I find less to read between the screaming, finger-pointing “non”fiction shelves that might as well be organized by blue states or red and the self-indulgent fiction shelves filled with characters I’d have trouble tolerating in an elevator. And when I do start something, I lose interest in it — or rather, it loses my interest — halfway through.

I’ve told the story here about how on September 11th, I was halfway through reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen — once a favorite author — and how I dragged that heavy book uptown after the collapse of the towers but had to throw it out because every page was infused with the dust of destruction. I bought another copy but never could get through it; the self-indulgence was suddenly out of place, even in bad taste; the pages were too clean, now.

I thought it was that experience that changed my view of books. But that was only part of it. I did have a new perspective about books and their quality and I also was affected by the Internet and weblogs; blogs entered my life as books took a break from it. I read more than ever. But what I read was more immediate, not just in the timeliness of its subjects but in the time it didn’t waste getting to the point.

Over time, I came to wonder whether it was me or books that were the problem. I wondered whether we had turned books into such sacred cows — if it’s glued at the edge, it must be smart — that we could not see their weaknesses and the strengths of other media.

I was thinking about all that when the National Endowment for the Arts released a survey on reading in America under the ominous title, “Reading at Risk.”

The study also documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers….

“This report documents a national crisis,” Gioia said. “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity – and all the diverse benefits it fosters – impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”

Yes, I agree with the importance of reading. It’s critically important for my kids to be reading books — and the books they’re reading are still good.

But this study assumes that the books we adults are served today are as worth reading as they were 10 or 20 years ago. I’m not so sure that’s the case.

And then I read a smart — because it agreed with me — and surprising — because it came from the former editor of the New York Times Book Review — op-ed by Charles McGrath. He takes apart some key assumptions of the study — namely the definition of “literary.”

And then McGrath gets to the larger point about the relative value of books:

The endowment’s larger point – that book reading in general is down, though not as much as what it considers purely literary reading – seems inarguable. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that reading itself is in quite the dire shape that the survey suggests. After all, it doesn’t consider magazines, it doesn’t consider newspapers and it doesn’t consider the Internet, except to imply that it steals time people used to spend with books. But when people surf the Web what they are doing, for the most part, is reading. To judge from the number of hits on sites like Google, they are gobbling up written information in ever-growing numbers.

The survey operates on the unspoken premise that books are our culture’s premier system of information storage, and the preferred medium for imaginative storytelling. No one would want to challenge that, but a nagging, heretical question nevertheless suggests itself. If people suddenly stopped going to the movies, for example, would we conclude that there must be something wrong with the moviegoing public or might we wonder whether movies themselves had declined?

Would people read more books, in other words, if there were more good books, or, rather, if all the good books weren’t quite so hard to find among the many bad ones?

I’m with him so far. And what he says is all the more credible coming from someone who spent many years of his career trying to find good books.

But then he goes that one paragraph too far:

Not that books are likely to improve any time soon. The really scary news in “Reading at Risk” is tucked away on page 22. While the number of people reading literature has gone down, the number of people trying to write it has actually gone up. We seem to be slowly turning into a nation of “creative writers,” more interested in what we have to say ourselves than in reading or thinking about what anyone else has to say.

No, sir, that’s the wrong way to look at it: When readers find nothing good to read, they write. And that’s good for writing. New voices. New perspectives. New authors. Hey, that’s what what’s happening to the news business via weblogs. If we’re lucky, it will happen to books next. And books need the change. Maybe when book readers start writing books, I’ll start reading books again.

  • I used to read several books a week. Now? When I’ve got one that’s necessary for a story, I read it. When I’ve got nothing better to do on Shabbos, I read it.
    Books are even worse than newspapers: at least newspapers are online. There’s no interaction, no copying-pasting-and-noting.
    If my regular intellectual endeavor includes both reading and writing, where do books fit in? They’re the most stubborn part of my information diet, refusing to be electronic, refusing to be annotated, refusing to be critiqued, cited, or dealt with in the same way that everything else I read is.
    Yes, the book stayed the same, while I changed. But so what? I’m better now than I was before, but books are just the same old codex.

  • Michael Zimmer

    Can’t find anything good to read?!? Think we need new authors with new perspectives?!? Maybe you need to revisit Homer, Stienbeck, Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner. Or perhaps Vonnegut, Burgess, Rand, Ginsberg, and Angelou? Hell, go read Asimov’s “I, Robot” instead of seeing the movie.

  • Paul

    I thought it was just me. I have a stack of books I’ve been planning to read, but I read so much online between blogs and the huge variety of news sources available that I’m too burned out to read more than a few pages before I put the book down. I’m hoping an upcoming vacation in my RV with no computer will allow me a respite and I can catch up. The immediacy and interactivity of blogs is addictive.

  • annette

    blame the publishing pooh-bahs. they have consolidated the industry into a few hierarchical towers that want celebrity books, easy sells. they take one full year to bring a manuscript from acceptance to publication and distribution, so it’s waaaayyyy out of date. they want “categories” rather than original works and they evaluate books based on new york insularity. frankly, the publishing houses are boring a nation of readers, while the net is fresh, lively, interactive, and timely. publishers won’t take a risk because they are all about money, only money.

  • Brian H

    I agree fully with the column and all of the above comments. I’d like to add that books seem to be turning into argumentative polemics, with a pushiness and lack of respect for the reader’s intelligence that make plowing through them more trouble than it’s worth. I have also gone to the extremes: blogs and classics (and sci-fi for relaxation). The editors of the media and books seem to have crawled out from under the same rocks. Possibly to much of the merchandising/marketing approach to writing: i.e., manipulate the reader’s attention and opinions with catchy images and highly selective pastiches of “facts”.
    Anyhow, the hopeful part of the Readership-Down phenomenon is that the “free market” is rejecting the shoddy product. We can only hope the same effect strikes NYT, LAT, CNN, etc., etc.

  • Brian H

    **too much**

  • Mike

    I also used to read a lot, a few books a week. I don’t really do that anymore. I’ve concluded that there really isn’t anything that I want to read anymore. I do re-visit old friends from time to time, but I only read certain sections, not the whole book.
    Pretty much given up on fiction, except for the escapist kind, and I mostly stick with histories.

  • Michael Zimmer

    These comments are disheartening. Where are you people shopping for books to read? K-Mart? You know there are more books out there than just the political polemics and what Barnes & Noble put on display in the entrance to their stores. Go to an independent bookstore….buy from an independent press….do something! READ!

  • Agreed on several points. I haven’t been reading many books at all lately, but I spend more hours a day reading than ever before.
    Regarding political books, I avoid them, even the ones I would probably agree with and want to read. The same goes for news magazines and political movies. By the time a magazine’s printed a half dozen rounds of discussion have furthered its issues online. Political books seem like way too long to spend with one person’s viewpoint. The same goes for movies, in two hours I can read newspapers and viewpoints from a dozen countries.

  • isn’t it just nice to take a break from the computer, from reality, whatever? that’s what makes books so great. and it leaves a little more for the imagination than does tv and even the internet. my latest: Positively Fifth Street, all about the world series of poker, The Time Machine by HG Wells, Deadeye Dick by K. Vonnegut, Touching the Void (NOT based on the movie, actually vice-versa), Native Tongue by Carl Hiassen. All were very much worthwhile.

  • Jeff, blogging may be the answer.
    The problem with books is the fact that, where it takes 2 hours to watch a movie, so it’s much more important to know that you’re going to enjoy a book before investing your time in reading it. Thus, you develop a reliance on reviews, which can only cover a small percentage of the enormous volume of books published. Thus, the ‘self-indulgent’ stuff only seems ubiquitous because it’s most popular amongst the reviewers – often unemployed, newly-minted PhDs, trying to demonstrate their own intellectual superiority.
    Here’s where blogs come in. Word-of-mouth remains the most reliable gauge of whether or not I’d like a book – if someone whose tastes I trust recommends something, I’ll probably like it. This has obvious shortcomings, but blogs widen your circle of exposure considerably. You have a lot more people reading a much wider variety of books than you’d get from the NYT Book Review. Instead of an unknown reviewer, bloggers gradually build up a history, allowing you to evaluate their tastes. Best of all, there’s interaction between bloggers, so instead of just reading a one-off review, you can get a debate on the strengths and weaknesses of a particular book.
    It hasn’t reached critical mass yet, but I think we’re heading there.

  • sbw

    Goodness! Other things are at greater risk than reading — like common sense, a sound framework for living, a sensible bullshit detector.
    Sixteen years ago for my 40th birthday, rather than a present I asked guests to bring a pointer to a book that made a difference in each of their lives. I received a treasure trove and extra insight into my friends. Selections ranged over 2,500 years of recorded thought.
    Great thinkers across history have addressed the simple daily problems of living, but nowhere in schools do we help students discover that they are not alone asking how to live wisely and well.
    So what do they test for in schools?

  • It seems that you limit yourself to reading what is currently published and easily available. That’s a shame because there are not only a great number of small press books that are terrific, there are books written by international writers that don’t easily get attention here and then of course the myriad books written earlier in this century and other periods that are well written and relevant. I don’t believe that it is possible to run out of great literature to read and with print-on-demand technology becoming available, the future looks bright in that regard.
    To say that it’s important for your children to read but not yourself has it’s obvious problems: Children are profoundly impacted by their parent’s actions.
    Additionally, writers don’t write because there is nothing good to read, they write from being stimulated by what they read to add to the great conversation that is literature.
    Lastly, I think that you are saying that we should focus less on the medium and more on the content of what we read, that the idea of reading books may just be outmoded. Unfortunately, the USA Today version of anything is not going to seep into our consciousness they way that a book does.

  • MD

    I agree with Michael Zimmer. There are so many beautiful books to read and so little time! May I suggest that you visit some book blogs? I get a lot of reading suggestions from them.
    Also, some of my favorite blogs are so beautifully written, it is like reading a continously ‘updating’ novel. There are some very, very talented people out there. Humbling, really.
    Try or The latter is especially touching – written by an expatriate (American, I believe) in Chennai.

  • Michael Zimmer

    Ok, no more excuses. This week the NYT, as part of the “Great Summer Read,” is printing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” in a daily supplement. Grab it, sit down, and spend 30 minutes reading. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt, and you don’t even need a blog to affirm that it is good fiction.

  • Jeff Jarvis Has ADHD

    A blogger calls Jonathan Franzen self-indulgent? I can’t take you seriously anymore. I’m outta here.
    Now back to your regularly-scheduled sloppy BJs for Denton and Reynolds.

  • scott orrell

    I echo many of your statements. I’m a 27 year old student of literature who hates to read books. I don’t know when it happened. I read the LAT and WSJ everyday, and I can’t count the number of bloggers I read daily (not to mention their links to other stories.) And now it seems I spend all of my time reading. Or discussing with my fiance things that we’ve read today. Funny, though, that I still miss books.

  • Andy

    I find books and much of newspaper and magazines reading to be a labor of love. They could use a good editor. They are bloated, wordy, wandering and unfocused.
    Books like restaurant meals have grown to give the purchaser some sense of value. The necessity of increasing the average price has encouraged sellers to increase the portion size. Now we feel obligated to clean our plate/finish the book that has grown.
    We need editors, we need adults to step in and cut back on the poundage. A 1 lb. book may be a much better read than an 8 lb. book. But if they are both priced the same the public feels there is more value in a large book that will never be finished.
    Do we really need 48,000 new titles every year?

  • Michael Zimmer

    Andy, we need 48,000 new books as much as we need 3,000,000 blogs. Perhaps more.

  • Not to be a pooper, but even after starting to blog, I’ve been reading as much as ever. But I’m unfair: most of my book reading is what came out years ago, even millenia ago. But I continue to be amazed at how superb so much of it is: Just to name some of my reads from past months, year or so: Thucydides, Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education,” of and about Joyce, Gibbon, Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, Joseph Campbell’s “Myths to Live By,” even a book that showed me much about Vietnam I never knew when I was there, Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie.” These are just a few off the top of my head. Just dug up Collected Letters of Ernest Hemingway and beginning the truly first-class Vietnam memoir “The Cat From Hue” by CBS correspondent Jack Lawrence. Let me stop right now, or this will never end. And going from book to blog and back again? Separate topic. Too much to disgorge there too. Stimulation? Maybe there’s too much of it—especially in the RIGHT books.

  • Michael

    It’s nice to know that some people read non-current nonfiction. In your case, it sounds like you’ve found some real treasures. I’m gonna have to review some of your posts with a different perspective.

  • Angelos

    Interesting comments all, from different perspectives.
    For me, there is nothing better than the tangible, the newspaper, book, or magazine I can sit with on the couch, Yankee game on, glass of wine poured.
    Or in the can, of course…
    I’m on the computer too many hours a day as it is. As important is it is to my income, enjoyment, and information, I’ve got to shut down at some point.
    I agree with most of the critiques of the publishing industry (consolidation and trend-watching aren’t good for ANYTHING really), but a stroll through your local bookstore or your large chain will show that there is still a wealth of interesting publishing going on.
    I agree that we can’t afford to lose a generation or two of book-buyers, though. That would prove to be REALLY ugly in 10 or 15 years, especially if you think we have problems now.
    Two possible causes:
    -young people can tell when they’re being pandered to by idiots. If a 50-something white guy in the publishing industry tries to commission something “the kids” will buy, be assured they won’t. If authentic young voices can get through the politics of the publishing world, they’ll be discovered by word of mouth.
    -The steady decline of the education system. This, I think, is a side-effect of the process of multi-cultifying. Yes, it was about time the cultural contributions of female and ethnic writers, artists, etc were recognized. But that wasn’t enough for the extreme leftists. They had to push the “dead white men” out of the door too. Sorry, if you haven’t read King Lear, Huck Finn, a little Hawthorne, some Keats and Shelley et al, you haven’t read. The “classics” are classic for a reason, and it’s not chauvinism.

  • ech

    The NYT had a piece this weekend (hat tip slashdot) on graphuic novels as a literary genre. (
    One point that was made: at some point in the 19th century, a tipping point was reached and novels displaced poetry as the dominant literary form. Perhaps the age of the novel is ending?
    In any case, much of what passes for lieterary fiction is overwritten, bi-coastal introspective scribbling that has essentially no plot. Give me the classics or genre fiction (good sf or mystery fiction).

  • Mike K

    Interesting discussion. I come by from time to time but haven’t commented here before. On books-
    “blame the publishing pooh-bahs. they have consolidated the industry into a few hierarchical towers that want celebrity books, easy sells. they take one full year to bring a manuscript from acceptance to publication and distribution, so it’s waaaayyyy out of date. they want “categories” rather than original works and they evaluate books based on new york insularity.”
    Some truth here. I became a small publisher last year to get a book into print and have learned a ton about the industry. Small publishing is tough but there are folks who know what they are doing and you just have to find them. There’s a lot about POD printing out there but it usually isn’t economical if you are going to actually try to sell the book.
    As far as reading is concerned; I found a couple of years ago and haven’t slowed down. I read about five books at a time. Almost all non-fiction except for a few novel series in mystery/military genre.
    I do worry about kids reading too little but mine seem to be OK and the ones I worried about as teenagers (I have one left) are reading more as they get older.
    On schools; my book is a science/medical history and I have been thinking about the high school market as an extra credit venue. I read a couple of high school biology texts and they are way harder than anything I had in high school ! I am very impressed with high school science textbooks. I don’t know how thoroughly the kids are expected to read the book but, if they do, they are well prepared.
    Few people will curl up in a chair with a laptop and electronic books are still a no go for most. Book technology will be with us for a while.

  • Franky

    Is your boredom with books a symptom of the short-attention everything these days now demands and encourages? With blogs, it seems to me the more I read, the less I know. There’s facts everywhere, but the meaning of the latest fact is usually left out, beyond how it hurts your opponents or supports our basic one-phrase argument.
    And call me an old-fashioned elitist but I’m pretty sure that this explosion of creativity where everyone writes their novels is not the wonderful virtue it’s made out to be (although I’m not sure beyond the general rise in narcissim I see anything wrong with it). As a professor once observed: in probability studies, the old example was a team of monkeys locked in a room for a millenium would eventually come up with the completed works of Shakespeare. The internet has, I think, disproved that once and for all.

  • Jim C.

    The decline in reading books is troubling, to be sure. However, McGrath overreacts here:

    The really scary news in “Reading at Risk” is tucked away on page 22. While the number of people reading literature has gone down, the number of people trying to write it has actually gone up. We seem to be slowly turning into a nation of “creative writers,” more interested in what we have to say ourselves than in reading or thinking about what anyone else has to say.

    The percent of people writing was 7.0% in 1982, which soared to an incredible 7.1% in 2002! Oh horror! (And it was 7.4% in 2002.) I’m no statistician, but I’ll guess the percentage increase isn’t significant within the margin of error.
    McGrath scares very easily.

  • freddie poo

    A rather tortured explanation for what had been said some time ago by Marshall McClluhan (spelling?)…we old timers can still turn off the Net and settle back with a drink and a book and find enjoyment, entertainment, and even interest…At least you don’t blame video games for a decline in reading…

  • phil

    I have a confession to make. I could hardly get throught the first few paragraphs of your boring column…..blah blah blah

  • The point is we only have 24 hours per day. More blogging = less reading.
    More of anything else = less of something else in your day.

  • Maybe we need to simply stretch and evolve our social models from “private reading” to “group reading” – anyone who has PowerPoint and a projector can make it happen in a flash – see The Visual Book Report, and Group Reading, Group Writing.