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.