American Culture

WordsDay: The old gods laugh, Part 1: what we don’t know CAN hurt us….

This is a picture of a dog reading – Cujo, likely, perhaps The Call of the Wild. One might wish it were Travels with Charlie, but let’s be reasonable…

This started mainly as an idle exercise. Each time I go to Goodreads, I am apprised of someone’s latest book which is, I am assured, a triumph of – well, some sort. Many of the books are #’s 3-4-5 in a “series” of books about – this or that currently popular genre. If you are a reader, or play at being one as many seem to do, you know the drill by now: the most successful books are those which appeal to current reading interests. In the second decade of the 21st century, that means one should write something in at least one of the following veins: science fiction (or one of its variations like cyberpunk or steam punk); paranormal thrillers – or romances (zombies and vampires have been quite successful, and wizards have made billions); or apocalyptic/dystopian adventures/romances/thrillers. Preferably any/all of these should be aimed at a “young adult” audience – though the range of that age group seems to be a matter of concern both to those who would censor any thing that doesn’t meet their narrow minded world views as well as to some writers who, silly creatures they are, think adults should read adult books on adult topics – you know, stories that might not end with “something magical” happening.

Harrumph, said the cranky old professor/author….

Yes, I know, I know. I miss the point. You’re thinking I’ve probably never even read any of the genres I’m oh-so-subtly snarking here. Except I have – in sci-fi, where I have the most reading experience, I started with Verne at age 11 or so – and I read Wells shortly thereafter, and Flowers for Algernon and Bradbury and Vonnegut. And in college/rock band years a band mate pushed me through The Foundation Trilogy, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land and later on another close friend pushed me to read Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson. And I even read some wonderful comic sci-fi this year. And of course I’ve read Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson so I’ve been warned about the dangers of mucking about with life its own self.  (Whether these works should be classified as sci-fi or horror – I incline toward the latter description – is always good cocktail party debate stuff.) So I have some experience with the genre.

I’ve read Bram Stoker’s chef d’oeuvre (and John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) multiple times so I have some vampire cred.

As for apocalypse/dystopia I’ve read Nevil Shute, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley. They’re all pretty decent writers on these subjects.

So, I think my trustworthiness as a reader, despite being rather over-credentialed, is provable.

I have read the first Harry Potter book and about five pages of that first Twilight book and I saw many ads for/articles about Hunger Games – books and movie(s). Yes, you notice a trend – with each passing year into the century of distributed culture, I’ve found what is touted as “must read” less compelling.

I’ve been wondering why and think I’ve hit upon an explanation.

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In the old “high/low” culture model that I (and more readers of this than might be willing to admit it) grew up in, there was a group of writers whose works were considered examples of great achievement in literary art (I leave the argument over what that term means to those scholars who’ve replaced Chaucer and Milton with – well, something else). As any culture critic (and there’s a growth industry, at least in what’s left of MLA) would tell you, the study of English, and especially the study of literature, is apt to make a student a laughingstock among his/her friends – as being an English professor has unfortunately become.

At the college level, when students can write research papers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of Wuthering Heights and get the same credit for knowledge of a field, maybe that field has lost its way. At the high school level, test prep to help students help their schools secure/retain funding has trumped the old idea of (at least) introducing people to “serious” literature. Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn don’t readily lend themselves to Scantron scored examination. So they get replaced by things that do.

So people graduate high school with almost no “literature experience” – and, think what one will, anyone over the age of 35-40 probably has at least some experience with ShakespeareAustenHarper Lee, or Steinbeck, to name some typical choices in the old “high school canon.” And most of them will admit, grudgingly or not, that they are somehow the better for it in some vaguely intellectual way.

(For those who’d argue that Buffy deserves academic/scholarly/critical study, I’d only offer this observation: the decline in student critical thinking abilities that we often hear bemoaned these days parallels a little too conveniently the decline in the study of literature and the rise in the “study” of popular culture topics – like Buffy. Just sayin’….)

As William Chace argues in The American Scholar:

With the books in front of us, we were taught the skills of interpretation. Our tasks were difficult, the books (Emerson’s essays, David Copperfield, Shaw’s Major Barbara, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and a dozen other works) were masterly, and our teacher possessed an authority it would have been ‘bootless’ (his word) to question.

Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking.

This will, likely, be dismissed as “old fogeyism” in the extreme – like unto the old “in my day” joke about having to walk back and forth to school through chest deep snow – uphill both ways. But bear with my premise for a bit. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that having students do that which forces them to grow intellectually – i.e., read and try to understand “great books” – might have the ancillary (and arguably salutary) effects of making them more astute readers – and more critical, demanding pursuers of quality in writers?

This brings me to what I really want to talk about – the reading habits of our culture. We will look at that in Part Two….

3 replies »

  1. As I’m sure you’re aware, Jim, there is a raging debate in high-tech fields that roughly represents the chasm between Microsoft and Apple. http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130625221857-8451-liberal-arts-and-humanities-education-who-is-right-bill-gates-or-the-late-steve-jobs

    So, the liberal arts aren’t dead just yet, though I do believe that they’re doing their damnedest to kill themselves. But that’s a different conversation.

    I will say that my daughter’s YA agent doesn’t want to see any supernatural or post-apocalyptic thrillers, so my daughter is working on a novel about how older YA types deal with death. The supernatural lover is in great decline, it would seem. And one good thing about the YA trend is that it may bode well for the future. I grew up reading the same books you did, and I’m a lifelong reader. Perhaps many of the the current YA market will be, as well. We can hope ;-).

    • This raging debate thing is interesting, JS, but I’m not sure it makes much difference. The same raging debate occurred in the late 80’s-early 90’s when students were leaving the humanities in droves for majors like communications and business/marketing/PR. The same arguments – that humanities study makes one more creative, etc., were trotted out then, too.

      But students voted with their feet or rather, with their major selection forms – and the humanities slide continued – and continues even as this new crop of debaters holds forth.

      Your daughter’s agent may be trying to catch the early turn in the YA market more back toward the Judy Blume/S.E. Hinton/Paul Zindel sort of YA stuff. That’s a smart and good thing – and I hope your daughter has much success. And such subject treatments would certainly be good for young readers. One would hope this would lead them to be willing to read “adult” books that deal with the same sorts of subjects. And open the reading markets to something besides escapist stuff. Nothing wrong with escapism – but it shouldn’t be the only sort of fare readers seem interested in.

      But since large numbers of adults are reading YA “paranormal romance” and the other stuff I mentioned, there’s still market there to be mined. We both know what that means.

      Part 2 will offer some interesting numbers info that you may be able to make something of. Although they’re not the sort of numbers to make either of us immediately sanguine about the sorts of reading habits/interests we’d like for “the reading public” to be demonstrating.

  2. Jim, I agree that the debate has been ongoing, but it’s only recently that the liberals arts have been backed by the company with the world’s highest market cap, and which is arguably the most admired company in the world, as well.

    If you keep this up, you’re going to FORCE me to explain why I think the liberal arts/humanities are their own worst enemies. And that’s a very long thing to write, indeed.