This week, or so, in criticism, #5,801

“Born in Russia, Andrei [the hero of Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country] is returning to a country that he left as a small child, a place now changed beyond recognition. Gone are the late-socialist stagnation and the post-Soviet poverty; in their place is something familiar to Western readers: a hip capitalist carnival for trend-chasing urban consumers side by side with economic insecurity and political malaise.” Gregory Afinogenov examines Keith Gessen’s fictionalized nostos, and what it reveals about the constraints that capitalism places upon politics, both in that terrible country and in this one (The Nation).

“One of my professors crossed out that line with the comment, ‘STUDYING LITERATURE IS NOT FUN!!’” Timothy Aubry looks into how and why the disavowal of aesthetic pleasure came to be the paramount sign of professionalism in the academic study of literature (Chronicle of Higher Ed).

“We are reminded of two axiomatic truths: that Aretha Franklin makes secular music sound sacred and vice versa, and that no matter how good the originals, her covers are invariably better.” Melissa Anderson praises a new Aretha Franklin documentary (4 Columns).

In the 1930s, Philip Johnson designed a speaker’s platform for the pro-fascist American politician Father Coughlin and subsidized a pro-Nazi pamphlet. He socialized with Nazi leaders in Germany until as late as 1940, and narrowly avoided being charged with sedition. And then, after the war, he started designing synagogues in New York State and nuclear reactors in Israel. “A nearly sociopathic ability to tune out every voice but one’s own can lead to Nuremberg or Jerusalem, and in Johnson’s case it led to both,” writes Armin Rosen, in a review of Mark Lamster’s new biography (Tablet).

“What [Hugh] Grant brings out is the self-delight, and eventually the perplexity, of a man who is also somehow acting himself, a confected chancer in double-breasted waistcoats, watch chains, and a trilby hat.” Alan Hollinghurst is entertained by Russell T. Davies’s and Stephen Frears’s television adaptation of the real-life story of a British member of Parliament who conspired to silence his gay lover by having him killed (NYRB).

“The struggle to find out what’s really going on in the world isn’t as wearying as the realisation that on the rare occasions you do find out, not everyone is waiting eagerly to hear about it.” Reviewing Alan Rusbridger’s new memoir of running the Guardian, James Meek explains the demoralization that has accompanied the undermining of print journalism’s business model (LRB).

This week, or so, in criticism, #724

“Hamrah’s answer was to find a literary voice so coiled, combative, and ironic that no marketing department could find its way into or out of it.” Max Nelson praises A. S. Hamrah, “the sharp-tongued, rain-lashed drifter of American movie criticism” (The Nation).

“‘Most of my peer group just isn’t thinking about homeownership anywhere,’ said Peter Hess, 31, who wrote the Popular Science article ‘These will be the best places to live in America in 2100 A.D.,’ and lives in New York City, despite knowing the risks. “I guess we will stay here and drown from coastal flooding with our friends.” Alyson Krueger profiles the forward-looking who are pre-disastering their real estate.

“The overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves has decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years.” A similar study in Puerto Rico’s rainforest found insect biomass has decreased sixtyfold over 40 years. Is it because of climate change? Pesticides? No one is sure, according to Brooke Jarvis. But given that the Creator was once hailed by biologists for his inordinate fondness for beetles, it seems ominous that he is now willing to do without them (New York Times Magazine).

“The crisis, [Crashed author Adam] Tooze writes, ‘was a devastating blow to the complacent belief in the great moderation, a shocking overturning of the prevailing laissez-faire ideology.’ And yet the ideology prevailed.” Robert Kuttner argues that Tooze’s Crashed will long be “the authoritative account” of the international financial crisis of 2008 and its compromised resolution (NYRB, subscription required).

“In an illuminating analogy [Moneyland author Oliver] Bullough likens the Bretton Woods system [which managed international currency exchanges and capital flows for the three decades following World War II] to

an oil tanker, a ship full of oil. If a tanker has just one huge tank, then the oil that fills it can slosh backwards and forwards in ever greater waves, until it destabilises the vessel, which overturns and sinks. That was the system after the First World War, when waves of speculative money capsized democracy. At Bretton Woods, the delegates designed a new kind of ship, where the oil was divided up between many smaller tanks, one for each country. The ship held the same volume of oil, but in a different way. The liquid could slosh back and forth within its little compartments, but would not be able to achieve enough momentum to damage the integrity of the entire vessel.

No sooner had the Bretton Woods conference in Hampshire, USA ended in 1944 than bankers applied their wits to a new challenge: how to break down the inner walls of the stable Bretton Woods ‘tanker’ that constituted the new international financial architecture.” Ann Pettifor explains in a review of four new books how financiers, in search of profits, figured out how to puncture the safeguards, known as capital controls, that had been devised at Bretton Woods to keep international banking from collapse (TLS).

This week, or so, in criticism, #723

“Any literary work staking a serious claim to glory is not going to reveal itself entirely on a first reading.” But “your moderately but not seriously good book tends to work well on first reading.” Tim Parks channels Giacomo Leopardi on the many reasons literary glory is probably unattainable by people who merely write well (NYRB).

“His writing is deeply musical—not just in the easy rhythm of his words, but in his sonic descriptions: piles of pistachios crackling in peoples’ hands in Iraq; the metallic rattling of the van on bumpy roads in Afghanistan; the croaking of frogs in the Barakar river on the edge of Bengal.” Geeta Dayal praises the late Deben Bhattacharya’s photo- and audio-enhanced diary of his twelve-thousand-mile quest in 1955 for folk music (4 Columns).

“Feuds draw us in for the joy of the spectacle, but in this case there is enough at stake—how we, as individuals and societies, might address suffering and depression—to make a more thorough assessment of the background vitally important.” Alexander van Tulleken tries to distinguish light from heat in the ongoing argument between Johann Hari and Dean Burnett about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of antidepressants (TLS, subscription required).

“He couldn’t escape the sense that hitting on someone in person had, in a short period of time, gone from normal behavior to borderline creepy. . . . At first, I wondered whether Simon was being overly genteel, or a little paranoid. But the more people I talked with, the more I came to believe that he was simply describing an emerging cultural reality. ‘No one approaches anyone in public anymore,’ said a teacher in Northern Virginia. ‘The dating landscape has changed.’” Kate Julian investigates five possible reasons young people are having less sex, and less romance, than previous generations did (The Atlantic).

“In the 1840s, Joshua Giddings, an abolitionist who represented Ohio in the House, concluded that too many of his colleagues from the free states were ‘afraid of these Southern bullies’. He resolved to express ‘boldly and fearlessly’ his abhorrence of slavery. . . . ‘The most dramatic innovation in congressional violence,’ Freeman writes, was that in the mid-1850s ‘Northerners fought back.’” Eric Foner extols Joanne Freeman’s chronicle of violence in Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War (LRB).

“Among journalists, the project generated mild derision of the who-cares-what-Joe-Schmo-ate-for-breakfast variety, but also enormous excitement among researchers, roughly four hundred of whom wrote during the project’s first three years with requests to use the data. So far, not one of them has gotten a hand on it.” Nora Caplan-Bricker looks into the moral and logistical hazards of archiving the internet (Harper’s).

Further into the twilight

In June, in posts at the New Yorker website and here on this blog, I reported new statistics about the amount of time that the average American spends reading, as a way of updating my 2007 New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books,” which discussed America’s shift from a literate culture to one of secondary orality. A couple of days ago, to prepare for a radio interview on the topic, I decided to poke around online to see if I could update other statistics in my 2007 piece as well. Here are a few that were easy for me to find . . .

In 2007, I wrote that

According to the Department of Labor, American households spent an average of a hundred and sixty-three dollars on reading in 1995 and a hundred and twenty-six dollars in 2005.

That spending dipped to one hundred two dollars in 2013, though it recovered somewhat in 2016, when it reached one hundred eighteen dollars. These amounts are not adjusted for inflation; if they were, the decline would look even steeper. Here’s a graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of household spending on reading between 1984 and 2017, also not adjusted for inflation:

US household spending on reading between 1984 and 2017

One of the pegs for my 2007 article was the release that year of a somewhat dire report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), titled To Read or Not to Read. The NEA has published several follow-up reports since then, including the more optimistic Reading on the Rise in 2008 and the more mundanely-titled U.S. Trends in Arts Attendance and Literary Reading: 2002-2017 in September 2018. The NEA defines “creative literature” as novels, short stories, plays, and poems, and it counts in that category electronic texts as well as those printed in ink on paper. In 2007, I reported that

In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four percent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.

The NEA subsequently reported that in 2008, the share of Americans saying they had read a work of creative literature in the preceding twelve months recovered slightly, to 50 percent, but the share fell again in 2012 to 47 percent, and then in 2015 to 43 percent. In 2017, the number was hovering at 44 percent.

What about non-fiction books, such as history, political punditry, and memoir? Over the past quarter century, the NEA has also regularly asked Americans whether they’ve read any book at all in the preceding year that wasn’t required for work or school, and it turns out that the decline here, too, has continued to be steady.

Pleasure reading in America, 1992-2017

It’s conceivable that the dip in household spending could be explained away by the price-cutting enforced by Amazon and by the internet’s decimation of the subscriber base of newspapers and magazines, but the recent declines in self-reported rates of reading look dismayingly consistent with the recent declines in average time spent reading. I’m afraid this is (still) a thing.