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.
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 Shakespeare, Austen, Harper 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….