Sunday, July 25, 2004

Plea for a literati nation

Michael Dirda in Sunday's Washington Post presents yet another take on the NEA survey of reading in America.

The question, of course, is what are those one in six people reading. And a number of people have addressed that over the last week or so.

By "literary" reading, the NEA report means "novels, short stories, plays, or poetry." But novels is a category that embraces mysteries, chick lit, adventure novels, Westerns, fantasy and science fiction, spy thrillers, possibly even children's picture books (this isn't clear).

He does have some lovely things to say about the realtionship between reader and text:

Those who really care about literature nearly always sit down with a pencil in their hands, to underline, mark favorite passages, argue in the margins. The relationship between a book and reader may occasionally be likened to a love affair, but it's just as often a wrestling match.

He notes how passive readers have become.

Poetry is suffering most of all. Poets keep their language charged, they make severe demands on our attention, they cut us no slack. While most prose works the room like a smiling politician at a fundraiser, poetry stands quietly in the dusty street, as cool and self-contained as a lone gunfighter with his serape flapping in the wind. It's not glad-handing anybody.

Instead of reading Toqueville or Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs. In short, we turn toward the bright and shiny, the meretricious tinsel, the strings of eye-catching beads for which we exchange our intellectual birthright as for a mess of pottage. For modern Americans, only the unexamined life is worth living.

Stop blogging. Go read a book.

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