Re-reading reading: bonus round

Actually, bonus round and afterthought.

First, the afterthought. In a recent post for The New Yorker taking a second look at data about American reading habits, I wrote that “there’s a little bit of good news: the average American reader spent 1.39 hours reading in 2003, rising to 1.48 hours in 2016.” But I’m not so sure now that that’s good news. I imagined a bulwark of readers who were redoubling their devotion to literature in a time of crisis, but another explanation of the surge occurs to me. Maybe we’ve lost the fair-weather, lightweight readers, and all that’s left is a core who have always spent serious time on reading.

Now the bonus round. One of the graphs of reading habits that I made got left on the cutting-room floor, because it seemed to require more explanation than it offered enlightenment. But here on my personal blog, I’m free to bore you a little if I want to. So here we go . . .

In my post, I parsed the reading habits of Americans by age. But because the American Time Use Survey, the source for my data, has now lasted more than a decade, it’s also possible to follow the progress of age cohorts—that is, to compare the reading habits of people who were 25 to 34 years old between 2003 and 2006 with those of people who were 35 to 44 years old between 2013 and 2016, and so on. I did so with five cohorts, using averages of the data from 2003 to 2006 and from 2013 to 2016, with the following dispiriting results:

The youngest Americans in this graph, born in the 1980s, managed to increase their reading time a little over the course of the decade, but not by very much; it’s probably another case of what I refer to in my post as a dead-cat bounce. Every other age cohort read less at the end of the decade, except for the oldest, representing people born in the 1940s. That result may be untrustworthy, however, because my averages compare the 55-64-year-olds of 2003 to 2006 with those who were over 65 between 2013 and 2016, so there are late-septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians in the mix, avidly reading and skewing the turquoise line higher than it deservedly should go.

Keep in mind that this graph is a little kludgier than the ones presented in and linked to in the original post (that’s why it got left on the cutting-room floor; sharp eyes will have noticed, for example, that the age cohorts that I’m comparing here overlap in birth years at the edges), but I think the overall pattern is suggestive enough for a blog on teh internet’s peripheries.

A powerful memory moving sideways

In the aftermath of Philip Roth’s death, a sentence that appeared in Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry, which fictionalizes Halliday’s friendship with Roth, has started circulating:

“An artist, I think, is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself through certain experiences sideways.” It’s a nice sentence—a pleasing mix of elusive and resonant. Did Roth himself write it? Well, no, though he could have transcribed it. Ruth Margalit got its provenance half-right in her recent review of Asymmetry for the New York Review of Books. Margalit claimed that in Halliday’s novel “The quote bears no attribution, but it comes from the nineteenth-century novelist Stephen Crane.”

Not exactly. In fact the quote appears in no novel, poem, or letter that Stephen Crane is known to have written. If you google, you’ll see that it has popped up in essays about Crane and in biographies of him for decades, but its earliest appearance is on page 232 of a 1923 biography of Crane by Thomas Beer. Beer’s biography, however, is largely fictional. Beer snookered not a few—Alfred Kazin and John Berryman are among those who fell for his tales—but as I wrote in a 2014 New Yorker essay about Crane, scholars have known since 1990 “that scores of the letters [in Beer’s biography] were ‘concocted,'” and “more than half a dozen people in Beer’s biography were concocted, too—including many whom Beer had credited as sources.” Beer seems to have been gay—he once commended a novel for containing “the most wonderful description of hair on a boy’s chest,” and in letters he addressed male friends as “Bitch” and “Purple Sunflower”—but he was conflicted about it, and he seems to have had a troubled identification with Crane’s youth, looks, accomplishment, and sexual amorality. Last week, after reading Margalit’s review, I checked the two-volume 1988 edition of Crane’s correspondence, and the scholars who compiled it, Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, don’t include the sideways-moving-memory sentence. It doesn’t even appear in the appendix they devoted to letters that have no source apart from Beer’s biography. In Beer’s biography, the sentence is part of a letter that Crane supposedly wrote to a young aspiring writer, and the letter jabs at Henry James and André Gide, which makes it easy to look for in the index to Wertheim and Sorrentino’s edition. (In his ventriloquisms, Beer liked to knock other gay writers; it’s his tell.)

In short, neither Philip Roth nor Stephen Crane came up with the idea that an artist is a powerful memory moving itself through experiences sideways. It came instead from a soul who had a much more fraught relationship with his sexuality and his powers of invention.