Thu. December 13
That Nonexistent Time When Everyone Read More Books
Julia Ingalls, writing in Salon, laments that the way we consume literature is changing, forcing us to turn to more instantly gratifying, “repackaged” literature. While she eventually praises the works that come of this new cultural shift, she writes that “[t]he reality of the 21st century is that unaccounted-for blocks of time just don’t exist like they used to, at least for anybody who’s trying to make a living.”
Was this true of the twentieth century? Or even the nineteenth? Look, let’s make a rule: Stop yearning for a time when things were supposedly better if it was only “better” for the lucky (and small!) classes or geographic regions that weren’t living on the verge of starvation. We identify with the enlightened classes in history because things are better today for more people.
Every time I read a piece about how much more awesome things were when “everyone” memorized poetry, I wonder if the author knows that “everyone” was really just a handful of the few people who could afford the time to study it. After all, schedules get crunched when you’re trying not to die of cholera or malnutrition.
Leisure as a common good is a recent invention. Medieval villagers found with books were more likely to get in trouble than to be praised for good habits. Bibles were ornately decorated to help nobles understand the book’s contents (and retain their attention).
Historian Rolf Engelsing has suggested there was a “reading revolution” in the eighteenth century, inspiring the Age of Enlightenment, but even such a “revolution” had its limits. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin famously began a subscription library in Philadelphia in 1731 because books were rare and expensive, but the Philadelphia Library and its kin wouldn’t be commonly free for more than a century.
The resurgence of stories about Abraham Lincoln courtesy of Spielberg’s latest film is a reminder that “unaccounted-for blocks of time” weren’t exactly a widespread commodity either. Many in Lincoln’s cabinet were the only ones of their families to receive proper educations. The reason? Families could only afford to send one child to good schools. In Abraham Lincoln’s own case, he never got the opportunity: Instead, he would borrow books however he could and try to read in secret, until his father would find him and force him to get back to helping in the fields. There wasn’t enough time in the day to raise crops and learn from books.
One story of Lincoln’s integrity is linked to his passion for reading: After mistakenly destroying a borrowed book one night, he returned it to its owner offering to work for the equivalent of the value of the book. The owner took advantage and had Lincoln do a variety of field chores that went way beyond the value of the book. Young Abraham did the tasks anyway.
Lincoln was one of the lucky ones because not only was he able to borrow books, he had a stepmother who taught him to read. Others weren’t so lucky, even years after his death.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of persons over fourteen years old and over who were illiterate during 1870 was 20 percent. If that were today, one out of every five people you’d meet would be unable to read the highway signs or the subway map. In 1900, the number became 10.7 percent. In 1979, the total dropped to .6 percent.
It’s worth keeping in mind this trajectory because some of the most seminal pieces of classical literature were published in the nineteenth century. In fact, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published in 1851, was trashed by critics as disorganized and weak. The American public was hungrier for stories of the West than it was eager to read about nautical adventures, so Moby Dick wouldn’t be recognized as a major work until the 1920s. Melville himself would have likely similarly complained that those who disliked it probably just didn’t understand it because they were insufficiently equipped with unaccounted for blocks of time. Now it’s taught as the greatest American novel.
As a percentage of the population, the reading public has greatly increased, and just as rapidly, reading tastes have shifted to more populist formats. Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been displaced by tween allegory Twilight, along with movie rights. But we live in a world where a children’s book like Harry Potter flies off the shelves into the hands of millions of kids and adults alike–reading is apparently still well-regarded by a significant portion of the population.
Perhaps the real problem, as Ingalls sees it, is taste. But even there, the masses aren’t all bad. The commercial success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy translated into increased sales of the original Tolkien books. Tolkien’s influences were medieval and he was a renowned linguist who was well-versed in ancient European languages.
There are more people reading. Chances are, there are more people reading classical literature thanks to high school classes, AP courses, and college curricula than ever before, and those same people are likely to be reading the trashy novels that tumble out of bookstores regularly. But it’s a bit unfair to claim that people are reading so much less when so much more of our lives are spent in front of screens that spill out text in droves. We’re an exceptionally text-based society, now more than probably ever before, from texting, to subscription-free online newspapers, to iPads, cell phone alerts, and eBooks.
If that’s in addition to TV watching (based on literary themes like the BBC’s Sherlock) and video game playing, that’s fine: At least we’re not contracting polio or dropping dead of exhaustion in the fields.