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What Does It Mean To Say That Somebody “Knows How To Read”

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It’s Monday again, and that means  I’m not going to have access to a computer after the next hour or so, so I’ve decided to start this early.

I’ve been looking at the comments, and a couple of things occur to me.

First is that it’s absolutely true.  Even twenty years ago, the students I teach would mnever have seen the inside of a college classroom, and in all likelihood neither would the students in the tier just above them.

Besides the remedial, make-up-for-what-you-should-have-learned-in-high-school stuff, we have “associate degree” programs in things like auto mechanics and licensed practical nursing, occupation with little or no connection to academic work, or academic talent, of any kind.

But I wasn’t asking that we should turn any of these people into even baby literary scholars.  Nobody has to be a scholar to read James Michener’s Hawaii or Irving Wallace’s The Chapman Report.  You don’t need an extensive knowledge of cultural context or a sophisticated understanding of literary forms.  You don’t even need a really large vocabulary.  These are what publishers call “commercial fiction”–as opposed to both genre fiction and literary fiction–and the entire point of them was to reach a mass audience of general readers with no particular expertise in literature.

Several people have suggested that the absolute number of readers in the country has grown over the last forty years, not shrunk, andthat the percentage of people who read is probably similar to what it was in 1960.  But I think it’s undeniable that these are not the same kind of readers as existed then.  

Publishers are in the business of making money, not supporting literature, and they seem to be convinced that no serious market exists for books like these.  And it’s not a matter of people not liking this kind of story, because similar stories do enormously well as movies or HBO miniseries.  The Sopranos was a lot of things, but it wasn’t a genre anything.  It had more in common with The Forsyte Saga than with crime novels. 

People are still more interested in people than in anything else.  The Higher Gossip is still the main draw of narrative.  It’s just that the Higher Gossip has disappeared from our bookshelves.

Robert suggests that slapping a genre label on a book–it’s a mystery! it’s a romance!–will tell the readers something useful and that only minor repercussions will result when they find out Scarlet doesn’t end up with Rhett.

I don’t think slapping a genre label on a book that doesn’t really belong in a genre tells us anything useful, and I do think that it tells lies that have much broader repercussions than just one or two unsettled readers.  Genre does not just tell us how the book ends, it tells us many other things about it.  GWTW is not a genre romance novel not only because Scarlet and Rhett don’t end up together, but because Scarlet is neither virginal nor admirable.  She’s a scheming, conniving, selfish sociopath who’s buried two husbands by the time she marries Rhett.   There is room for such characters in genre romance, but they’re always the evil Other Woman, not the heroine.

If you want to see just how much trouble such expectations can cost, I give you the one and only time I ever had a book picked up by the Mystery Guild.  That was Somebody Else’s Music, and I can only assume that nobody at the Guild read it, because when it appeared in the catalogue it was promoted as a cozy and was without the little warning note they append when a book contains graphic violence, explicit sex or “strong language.” 

Unfortunately for me, and my chances of ever having another book in a book club, SEM is not a cozy and it contains all three of the things forbidden in cozies–there’s plenty of strong language (inludeing the f-word), a fair amount of graphic violence and, yes, some explicit sex.  Readers, having counted on the genre label to insure certain things about the book, were furious.

I also don’t see what’s so difficult about telling readers what a mainstream novel is about.  The Thorn Birds?  It’s the story of a young woman growing up in Australia who has an affair with a priest and how that impacts her life, his life, and the lives of all the people around them.  The Chapman Report?  It’s the story of how this big sex survey comes to town and interviews all these women, and the impact those intervies have on their lives and their marriages.

I’m very aware of the fact that I’ve chosen a couple of chick lit volumes above, but I could do the same with any other mainstream novel.  And, like I said, it’s not that readers would have difficulty with such descriptions, since they seem to be able to handle them when they’re appended to television programs and movies.  From the evidence of box office receipts and DVD rentals, there’s an enormous audience for this kind of story out there, it just isn’t translating into an audience for books.

Nor do  I think that the popularity of the Harry Potter books is necessarily a hopeful sign.  Harry Potter is a series for children, and because it is a series for children it is restricted in both vocabulary and plot complexity.  Granted, the later books are less so than the early ones, but even with the seventh and last volume we are dealing with work that has consciously been aimed at readers assumed to be less sophisticated than grown up ones.  It’s also the case that every book in that series has pretty much the same plot, and the plot is a genre fantasy plot that has been with us at least since  Tolkein, if not before.

What’s worse, the numbers for the Harry Potter series, although stunning in book sales terms, or abysmal by any other measure.   A Harry Potter hardcover now sells through at around 850,000 copies.  The paperbacks do two to five million, and many of those are repeat sales, books sold to readers who have the hardcover but don’t want to damage it, or who have lost it, or whatever.

A movie or a television show that did this kind of business would be considered an utter failure, and even if we assume (wrongly) that every single copy sold represents a distinct reader, 6,000,000 out of 300,000,000 is only 2%.  This is not evidence of a nation of readers.

So the question comes down to this:  what does it mean to say somebody “knows how to read?” 

At the very least it should mean that the person understands the words on the page in their most straightforward sense, that he doesn’t read “there are two kinds of thinking, religious and scientific, and the religious is wrong’ as if it said “there are two kinds of thinking, religious and scientific, and everybody should pick the way that’s right for them.”

I didn’t make that one up.   It’s a response I get from students over and over again after I’ve asked them to read a very short essay by Richard Dawkins.  I think that what’s  happening, in this case, is that they are sure they know what the article is going to say, and stop paying attention to it after the first line or two.  

This is also, I think, what they are able to do with genre fiction, what many people are able to do with genre fiction, and what might account for the fact that it has gained so much more support against mainstream fiction than it used to have.

If you already know what the book is going to say, you need to put ery littl effort into “reading” it, and you don’t ven need to ‘read’ it at all in any sense in which m ost of the people who read this blog would define “read.”  When the book breaks the rules a little you don’t notice it.  When the book breaks the rules a lot, or comes without rules, you declare that you don’t “understand” it.

And maybe you don’t.  But I would say that anybody–including the nurse and the garage mechanic–who can’t follow the plot of Gone With The Wind or  Hawaii cannot be said to be able to read in any sense at all.

And the problems they have with books like that will show up as problems elsewhere, in books that are not fiction.

Because part of this seems to me to be a case of not being able to pay attention.

Written by janeh

February 2nd, 2009 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'What Does It Mean To Say That Somebody “Knows How To Read”'

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  1. We still don’t have a firm fix on the extent of the problem of poor reading skills. Maybe your students who mis-read Dawkins wouldn’t have read mainstream novels if they had been born a generation or two ago. Maybe the current equivalents of novel-readers are as capable as they ever were, but are spending more time with TV, computers or, as someone else said, at work.

    We (or most of us) can come up with tales of the appalling lack of ability to read, and to express (or possibly even to form) coherent thoughts of many contemporary students. The author of that article on the weekend had the advantage of a lifetime’s experience with large numbers of students who might be expected to be literate, and to be at least willing to improve their literacy. But anecdotes, even series of anecdotes covering years aren’t evidence. They just provide connection and the feeling that their content must be generalizable to the larger situation.

    I do think western civilization is changing – which it’s done since its inception – and changing more quickly than ever before, thanks to increased speed of communication. Some of these changes appear to be tied to changes in communication methods and quite possibly one of the results of the rise in electronic communications is a reduction in the numbers of avid readers and a lack of good basic reading and writing skills. But I don’t think anyone here has proven any of it.

    Not paying attention (something I’ve been accused of at various times, often with justification) probably contributes. If you’ve got someone sitting in an English course she doesn’t think she should have to take told to read something of no interest to her at all, she may well try to skim through it as fast as possible. The idea that something should be done well, or not at all, is very out of fashion these days. But in that case, it’s not that the person can’t read properly, it’s that she won’t bother.

    I think that many of the changes in society have resulted in little reading, little interest in difficult reading or writing and little interest in the past (including both classic novels and history). I’m not sure how novel this is – practically everyone in the high school I went to had little or no interest in reading and certainly none in any kind of history – that of ideas, politics, civilization, anything. Whether more of them acquired, more or less by force, a certain level of literacy in spite of themselves that is not as commonly found now, I don’t know. Most of them managed sufficient literacy to get into some kind of post-secondary institution, and all learned enough to do the basics of filling in forms, reading instruction manuals and writing basic letters or notes. Of course, back then, anyone who couldn’t learn that much wouldn’t have been in the system anyway, at least not to the high school level. Many things have changed in education since then, and not all of them are negative.


    2 Feb 09 at 10:53 am

  2. Wente isn’t a columnist I read at all regularly, but I noticed that she seems to be saying the same sort of things we are saying.



    2 Feb 09 at 2:55 pm

  3. Actually, I suggested that people were using shorthand when talking to publishers and buyers, and I did suggest that it might cause problems with expectations–with the publishers and buyers.

    [But GWTW remains a romance. If Scarlet had given up on Rhett in favor of Tara or Women’s suffrage, THEN it would not be a romance. It’s the commitment, not the being together. Or is there no romance in CASABLANCA?]

    And before I can be convinced we have a serious national problem, I have to have a span of time. How does selling a “Harry Potter” book for every 50 Americans compare with sales of Tolkien a generation ago, for instance? More importantly, how, generally, do per capita book sales and library usage compare over 40 or 50 years? These numbers are surely available.

    But at the very least we have a sort of national impatience. Milt Caniff was noting a few years before his death that he’d had to shorten the story arcs on STEVE CANYON. He just couldn’t keep the audience interested as long in the 1990’s as he had in the 1950’s. So nearly as I can tell, magazine serials are dead, and they were still running into the late 1960’s or early 1970’s at least. And it’s intriguing how much more is charged for a DVD or a videogame immediately after release. The buyers, if they pay any attention at all, know the same product will cost half as much next year, and by then they’ll know if it was any good. People pay serious premiums for “right now” as opposed to “just a little later.”

    My first guess would be not a reading problem, but a comprehension problem. The ones who can’t pick the meaning from the text will come away from a lecture just as clueless. But that gives me neither origin nor cure.

    As for the rise of the evening soaps, be they DALLAS or THE TUDORS, I have no idea why evening television began running long story arcs while commercial lengths were headed in the opposite direction. One of those indicators is misleading, but which one and why?


    2 Feb 09 at 5:56 pm

  4. I wouldn’t call GWTW a romance. There are romances in it, sure, but it isn’t in that genre, for all the reasons Jane mentions. I used to read a lot of romance novels. They’re single focus – on the relationship. Not only does Scarlett have several relationships, none of them happy or really successful, her primary focus is on herself and Tara.

    I gave up on the Tudors when they had Henry’s sister murder her husband. Not only was that implausible (at least the way they did it), he was the wrong husband! The marriage she agreed to on condition she chose her next husband herself was with someone entirely different (and not murdered by her).

    It’s odd the things that spoil books. I read another recently in which the protagonist was doing a lot of stuff with realistic medieval feasts, and announces at one point that of course the medievals didn’t eat potato quite as often as we do today. Well, no, they didn’t. And there’s an excellent reason for that, which the author remembered some pages further on!


    2 Feb 09 at 6:21 pm

  5. I missed the Genres 2 post with the link to Bertonneau. Back when I was an undergraduate, all students in the University were required to take an English course on World Literature. It wasn’t too bad, I enjoyed The Illiad, Oedipus Rex and Moby Dick. But I hated Paradise Lost and whatever Hardy novel we had to read.

    Bertinneau’s course strikes me as high brow becuaes I suspect I would have hated most of the books.


    2 Feb 09 at 9:37 pm

  6. If you would like to read an interesting book which treats the topic we have been discussing as one aspect of a pervasive problem in American society, try The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. It’s both fascinating and depressing.

    From Publishers Weekly
    Inspired by Richard Hofstadter’s trenchant 1963 cultural analysis Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism) has produced an engaging, updated and meticulously thought-out continuation of her academic idol’s research. Dismayed by the average U.S. citizen’s political and social apathy and the overall crisis of memory and knowledge involving everything about the way we learn and think, Jacoby passionately argues that the nation’s current cult of unreason has deadly and destructive consequences (the war in Iraq, for one) and traces the seeds of current anti-intellectualism (and its partner in crime, antirationalism) back to post-WWII society. Unafraid of pointing fingers, she singles out mass media and the resurgence of fundamentalist religion as the primary vectors of anti-intellectualism, while also having harsh words for pseudoscientists. Through historical research, Jacoby breaks down popular beliefs that the 1950s were a cultural wasteland and the 1960s were solely a breeding ground for liberals. Though sometimes partial to inflated prose (America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism), Jacoby has assembled an erudite mix of personal anecdotes, cultural history and social commentary to decry America’s retreat into junk thought.

    Lee B

    2 Feb 09 at 9:42 pm

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