Notebook: “Twilight of the Books”

My essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker. As with earlier articles, I’d like to post here an online supplement and bibliography. There are, however, many more sources of data for this article than for earlier ones, so I’m going to go about it slightly differently this time.

First I’ll discuss the books that I quoted and referred to; that’ll be fairly straightforward. Then, in a day or so, I’ll move on to the scientific papers, governmental studies, and expert reviews of the field, including many that I consulted but did not quote. There are so many of these studies that I’ll group them together according to topic and present them over the course of several days. Since many are not available for free online, I’ll provide a brief summary of the method and findings of each study, including such details as the size of the population surveyed or tested, which can be useful as a very rough indication of reliability. If all goes according to plan, the result will be a series of blog posts that add up to an annotated bibliography about reading habits and literacy in America. This bibliography won’t be comprehensive, and you’ll find in it contradictions as well as confirmations of the trends I write about in my article; that’s the nature of data once you dip below a certain level of granularity. I won’t be analyzing the evidence here, and I imagine that trying to read the summaries one after another will resemble eating a very organic and healthful brand of granola without so much as soy milk to assist you. My attempt at sense-making and fluency, of course, is to be found in The New Yorker article itself; please read that first!

As ever, my first debt is to the book under review, Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. In her conclusion, Wolf invites the reader to take the ideas in her book beyond what she herself has written, and I am guilty of taking her invitation quite literally; in order to write about the changing reading habits of Americans, I had to forego her discussion of dyslexia, for example, to which she devotes a full third of her book.

Wolf’s book drew my attention to Proust’s essay “On Reading,” which was originally the preface to his translation into French of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, a book that has this lovely advice to those worried about what it is proper for a young woman to read: “Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in the field. It knows the bad weeds twenty times better than you, and the good ones, too.” Aleksandr R. Luria’s unexpectedly charming investigation of the cognitive habits of Uzbek peasants was published as Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundation (Cambridge: Harvard, 1976). My quotes from Marshall McLuhan come from his 1967 collaboration with Quentin Fiore The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, a book that is graphically designed to the edge of intelligibility and slightly beyond, and my quotes from Eric Havelock come from his early, scholarly Preface to Plato and also his later, more accessible The Muse Learns to Write. Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole’s study of the Vai, The Psychology of Literacy, is currently available as a print-on-demand book, and Routledge still publishes Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy. My reference to Jack Goody and Ian Watt is to their 1963 essay “The Consequences of Literacy,” which is reprinted in Goody’s anthology Literacy in Traditional Societies.

Finally, a word about the National Endowment for the Arts’s new study To Read or Not to Read. I knew since midsummer that the NEA had the study in the works. However, because I wanted to time my article to come out when their report did, and because the NEA declined to release any details early, I had to compile independently a survey of the existing research rather similar to the one they were compiling. There’s a lot of overlap, therefore, between the studies they found and the ones I did. Of course I found some evidence they didn’t, and vice versa. Because of the way I worked, their study doesn’t appear often in the summaries that I’ll post over the next few days. But if you’ve read my New Yorker article and want to look at more data, their report should probably be your next destination; then come back here for more if you’re still unsated.

Tomorrow (or the day after; I’m moving a little slow this week): Are Americans reading less?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Ghastly Sights

Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights: A History is the subject of a lovely, insightful review by Gary J. Bass in the 7 May 2007 issue of The New Republic. Last month I wrote about Gordon Wood’s New York Times review of the book, because I was taken with Hunt’s suggestion, as relayed by Wood, that novels, by teaching empathy, fostered the development of human rights. Wood was skeptical of the link, but Bass thinks it reasonable:

The point that literature has been a cause of empathy is not a new one, but it is still a good one. . . . [T]his closing of the distance between people represented, in Hunt’s view, a huge leap of the moral imagination—the sort of leap without which the idea of human rights would not have been possible.

Bass has high praise for Hunt’s book, but he notes that she hurries through the history of human rights in the nineteenth century, and therefore provides his own capsule summary of the missing years. His survey ends with the observation that a liberal reader might look back “with a certain sense of satisfaction” at the progress made between the sixteenth century and now. “Human rights is not triumphant, to be sure; but the idea is holding its own.” But then he adds a note of concern:

Yet there is one element of this era of human rights that is in retreat: print capitalism, and thus foreign press coverage. Print and capitalism are not getting along. . . . Under heavy pressure from investors, some of the country’s best newspapers have decided to go local. . . . When the suits decide to shut those [foreign] bureaus, they fritter away a hard-won achievement of centuries. They are reversing the moral gains of modern empathy.

This adds a new wrinkle to the speculation that has been worrying me, namely, that as novel reading gives way to the enjoyment of streaming, visual media, we may no longer be able to take for granted that people will feel the kinds of empathy they used to. Newspaper executives shut their foreign bureaus, of course, for the same reason they shut down their papers’ book-review sections: they have to cut something, because profits are down, and they suspect their readers won’t mind their absence.

Bass’s review provoked another speculation in me. In passing, he jokes that public executions and public state-administered torture were the eighteenth-century equivalent of “the slasher movies of our time” in their capacity to draw an audience. He writes that Declaration of Independence-signer Benjamin Rush

denounced public punishment for its attempt to block the public from empathizing with the sufferer. For Rush, it was crucial to realize that even convicts “possess souls and bodies composed of the same materials as those of our friends and relations.”

It’s intriguing that an eighteenth-century human rights activist (to describe Rush loosely) was concerned that the spectacle of punishment would deter empathy. Rush, a doctor, thought and wrote about the human nervous system, so his interest in the problem is understandable. Rush’s comment reminds me of Charles Dickens’s famous description of the “wickedness and levity” of the London crowd that gathered to watch the 13 November 1849 hanging of the husband-and-wife murderer team Frederick and Maria Manning:

Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly—as it did—it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world.

The novelist, too, worried about the moral effects that such a spectacle had on its observers. (Herman Melville, as it happens, was also watching that day, and wrote in his journal, more laconically, that “The mob was brutish.”) I’m wondering, I suppose, whether, having been taught by novels to value empathy, reformers recognized such spectacles as enemies of empathy and therefore sought to quarantine them, and whether we risk something in allowing them to multiply.

While on the subject, I ought to correct a misstatement. I wrote, a couple of weeks ago, that David Griffith’s A Good War Is Hard to Find “starts by comparing the novel and movie versions of the torture scenes in Deliverance.” Not so; that was my misunderstanding of an email from its publisher, Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press, who was kind enough to send me a copy. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that Griffith does compare the novel and movie versions of Deliverance, but his comparison is in chapter 4, not chapter 1:

In the film, the scene lasts only a few minutes, whereas in the book, narrated in the first person, the whole episode lasts for nearly thirty pages. . . . Dickey’s book forces us to meditate on the ugliness of violence through images that are not neutral and objective but that call attention to the way violence, as Simone Weil argues in her revolutionary essay on The Iliad, can make a human being into an object. . . . Dickey captures the language of empathy that compels us to see the violence as despicable, not funny. . . . There is no way to flinch, to turn away, or close our eyes to it; there is no soundtrack to dull the senses.

Griffith doesn’t think the movie of Deliverance irresponsible in its handling of violence; his implied comparison here is actually between both versions of Deliverance and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which he finds “ultimately destructive.”

The distinction between novelistic description and filmed depiction of torture is not, however, Griffith’s main concern. What he’s after is the distinction between representations of evil that are merely entertaining and those that allow the reader or viewer to understand his own complicity—his sin, actually, because Griffith is a Catholic, and his book is not only a meditation on the roots of the Abu Ghraib scandal in American culture but also an essay in theology. It’s an idiosyncratic, highly personal essay in theology, written with an appealingly broad yet lightly worn erudition, citing sources as disparate as Flannery O’Connor and Wayne Koestenbaum, but it is theology nonetheless. I was reminded, in reading it, of how rich the vocabulary of serious theology is, and how infrequently it is spoken in the public sphere on such topics, about which it has much to say. As a lapsed believer, I couldn’t follow Griffith in all of his arguments. I agree, for example, that American culture is evasive on the subject of its own potential for evil, but I’m not sure that an awareness of one’s potential for evil is necessarily salutary for the soul. I also don’t think that the best way to re-introduce moral questions into the legal sphere is by a turn to religion, and I’m not convinced that an improved understanding of what it means to be a Christian nation would bring about the outrage and energy for reform needed in America on the subject of torture—though of course I’d be very happy if it did. Griffith’s is nonetheless a tremendously likable book, and it was uncanny how often I agreed with his aesthetic judgments—thumbs up for Blue Velvet, and down for Andy Warhol. I found myself wanting to push Muriel Spark on him, if by some chance he hadn’t already read her.

A final, utterly miscellaneous, but not altogether unrelated note: While reading J. Gabriel Boylan’s brilliant and quirky essay on Vangelis’s soundtrack to Blade Runner in a new journal called The Crier—an essay that prompted me to wonder, “If you Googled for William Blake, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Lloyd Wright, would you land on the Wikipedia page for Blade Runner?” only to discover, no, you land on Boylan’s essay—I found myself recalling the machine in the movie that distinguishes humans from replicants through a series of questions about empathy—in one case, empathy for an animal in pain—as if it were the most distinctive trait in human nature.

Would you like a gift receipt with that?

The other night, a friend in publishing mentioned in conversation that December sales had been disappointing throughout the industry this past year. The 2006 holidays had brought an upward bump, as people bought books as gifts for family and friends, but the bump was smaller than expected.

His comment intrigued me, because I wondered if it might be another sign of the qualitative change in the culture caused by the decline in literary reading. Buying a book for oneself is a relatively straightforward thing to do; all that’s required is that you like to read, are in the mood to, and have enough money or credit to effect a purchase. But it’s a bit more complicated to buy a book as a gift. The person you’re buying for has to be a reader, and you have to be one, too, because you have to feel confident that you can choose a book worth reading. Moreover, you have to know enough about the recipient’s reading habits to choose one she would probably like but hasn’t read already. In other words, the two of you have to have been having a fairly sophisticated, ongoing conversation about what you read and what you like to read.

Thus the purchase of books as gifts is probably a more fragile statistic than the purchase of them for oneself, and if literary reading is on the decline, one would expect books to be bought less frequently as gifts. One might even expect that the proportion of books bought as gifts would decline more steeply than book-buying generally. And that does seem to be what’s happening, to judge by retail bookstore sales reported to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Here’s a graph of annual bookstore sales (in light green) and December bookstore sales (in dark green). Before anyone gets too optimistic, yes, it’s true that aggregate bookstore sales have grown at what looks like a healthy rate. But so has the U.S. population, and so has consumer spending overall during this period, and book sales have not kept pace. In 1985, the average U.S. household spent $141 on reading, out of a total entertainment budget of $1,311 and a total consumer expenditure of $23,490. In 2004, the average household spent $130 on reading, out of a total entertainment budget of $2,348 and a total consumer expenditure of $43,395. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 Statistical Abstract.) The upward trend you’re seeing here is the result of more people and more money in America, not of an intensification of reading.

If you divide the December sales by the annual sales, you get the yearly percentage of book sales that occur during the holidays. As you can see, if December sales are a reasonable proxy for gift sales, then people have been buying fewer books as gifts, comparatively speaking, over the last decade and a half—another sign, I think, that the place of literary reading in American culture is shifting.

(A side note: Though I didn’t chart them, the largest spikes in book sales every year aren’t in December at all; they’re in August and January, as students buy books for courses. I haven’t checked yet to see whether these are becoming a higher proportion of reading expenditures, but if they are, that would be another dark sign, in my opinion…)

POSTSCRIPT (1 September 2007): I think this post is safely too outdated for anyone to be in danger of referring to it any more, but in case anyone does, there’s a major flaw in my data above. The Census department’s numbers only include brick-and-mortar book sales, not online book sales. Now, since Amazon automatically does packaging and mailing, it’s super convenient for book giving. It’s possible, therefore, that the decline in month-of-December sales noted above is *not* a decline in giving books as gifts, but rather a shift toward buying gift books online.

Read all about it

The house bloggers of The New Republic are agitating for a new American book review, which would bring to an intelligent lay readership the news to be found in the thousands of scholarly books published every year. Their model seems to be Britain’s Times Literary Supplement (which, I agree, is well worth the more-than-$150-a-year price tag). "At the moment there is a hole in our cultural life where a bridge needs to be built," writes Jeffrey Herf.

The project sounds worthy, and I hope it happens, though I’m not optimistic. My gloomy suspicion is that the hole in the culture is a geological fault that’s likely to widen, and that any bridges built across it are likely to founder unless they’re made of something highly stretchable. Though many observers (and good friends of mine) do not believe that there’s a reading crisis, I think that something happened to the nation’s reading habits and skills in the past decade or two (click here for a meandering essay of mine on the subject). It seems possible to me that a healthy, high-volume exchange of ideas between the scholarly community and the general public may be a part of the collateral damage.

As it happens, last week brought another piece of evidence about the reading crisis, when the National Center for Education Statistics released the results of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). As the New York Times reported on 23 February 2007, "It showed that the share of 12th-grade students lacking even basic high school reading skills . . . rose to 27 percent from 20 percent in 1992. The share of students proficient in reading dropped to 35 percent from 40 percent in 1992."

It’s the loss of proficient readers that most concerns me, and that is
most likely to have an impact on what might be called the country’s
intellectual health. If you download the 2005 NAEP
and take a closer look, you’ll see that they assessed three kinds of
literacy: reading for information, reading to perform a task, and
reading for literary experience. No prize for guessing which declined
the most steeply.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lindsay Waters recently noticed the general, nationwide decline of reading, and blamed professors for it. "We have distinguished professors of literature at elite universities promoting methodologies of study that positively discourage reading," Waters wrote. I’m inclined to exonerate the professors. They’ve been trying to make literature seem harder than it is for a long time; it’s only in the last couple of decades that they’ve been able to succeed. The temptation to blame them for it is a perspective mistake, I suggested in a little essay I wrote for n+1 last year. Did the chicken expel the egg, or did the egg abandon the chicken? My guess is that academic literary critics lost their interest in such humane values as style, pleasure, and taste after they lost their audience among the general public, not before. Nothing they did or wrote caused the divide. It only seemed that way if you spent a lot of time reading them (or, er, us).

The loss lamented by the New Republic bloggers—that is, of the public intellectual’s niche in the ecosphere—is probably of a piece with the waning of the pertinence to literature of scholarship in the literary humanities. Thus my pessimism about the prospects of their proposed review. (I reviewed Richard Posner’s book on the demise of public intellectuals for The Nation a few years ago; as it happens, he called in that book for the creation of a periodical not unlike the one the TNR-ites are asking for.) In the unlikely event that the TNR bloggers do succeed, however, I hope they won’t take too seriously all of their pronouncements about what is and is not proper in a book review. Some of those pronouncements seem to me symptomatic of a declining participation in the public sphere, rather than diagnostic of it.

For example, I’m glad that Herf recognizes that a well-written book review does more than merely rate the book in question, and is also supposed to engage with its ideas. But Eric Rauchway (scroll down for his contribution) admonishes would-be reviewers as if their first loyalty should be to the authors of the books they review, and as if they oughtn’t dare write one at all if they haven’t been properly credentialed. "Write a book before you review one," commands Rauchway. As Samuel Johnson once replied, to a very similar stricture, "Why no, Sir; this is not just reasoning. You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables."

Rauchway also orders reviewers to "Write about the book you’re reading, not . . ." and then interdicts a number of topics, all of which might well enhance and illuminate a review, which is a species of essay, whether he likes it or not, and as such is perfectly entitled to take a book merely as an occasion and to be as whimsical and digressive as it pleases, unless we’re to be condemned to a narrow utilitarian consumerism. Rauchway further orders reviewers to "Avoid quips," and here, too, I disagree. I’m against gratuitous and excessive malice, but obsequiousness is no more desirable than sadism in a book reviewer, who should not have to worry too much about the vanity of the author. Sometimes a joke is the quickest and liveliest way to make a point. And from time to time there are some real zingers in the TLS.