By Alan Jacobs
While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to. And that’s to be expected. Serious “deep attention” reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.
At the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps 2 percent of Americans attended a university; now the number is closer to 70 percent (though only about 30 percent get bachelor’s degrees). A particularly sharp acceleration occurred in the years after 1945, when the GI Bill enabled soldiers returning from World War II to attend college for free, thus leading universities across the country to throw up quonset huts for classrooms, and English professors to figure out how to teach 40 students at a time, rather than 11, how to read sonnets. (And those GI’s wanted their children to have the same educational opportunities they had, or better ones.) These changes have had enormous social consequences, but for our purposes here, the one that matters is this: From 1945 to 2000, or thereabouts, far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.
In 2005, Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, sociologists from Northwestern University, published a paper concluding that while there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run. “We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.”
I don’t think of the distinction between readers and nonreaders—better, those who love reading and those who don’t so much—in terms of class, which may be a function of my being a teacher of literature rather than a sociologist, but may also be a function of my knowledge that readers can be found at all social stations. But whatever designations we want to use, it has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of “the reading class” beyond what may be its natural limits.
The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed. (“I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing,” Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes. “Can I go back to my books now?”) Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made. They take care of themselves; they always do go back to their books. They come out of the woodwork when Clay Shirky says that War and Peace isn’t interesting to reply that, to the contrary, it’s immensely interesting, fascinating, absorbing, and by the way, Mr. Shirky, have you ever tried reading it or are you speaking out of ignorance?—and then back to their books they go.
Those are my tribe, but they are few. It is more common to come across the person who has known the joys of reading but who can be distracted from them. But even those folks are a small percentage of the population.
American universities are largely populated by people who don’t fit either of these categories—often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating. We love reading, we think it’s wonderful, and we want other people to think so, too. “What we have loved,/Others will love,” wrote Wordsworth, “and we will teach them how.” A noble sentiment! Inspiring! But what if, after great labor, we discover—this often happens—that we can’t teach them how? Whose fault is that?
Perhaps it isn’t anyone’s fault. Steven Pinker once said that “Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.” The key here is “painstakingly”: There can be many pains, in multiple senses of the word, for all parties involved, and it cannot be surprising that many of the recipients of the bolting aren’t overly appreciative, and that even those who are appreciative don’t find the procedure notably pleasant. So it’s important to dissociate reading from academic life, not just because teachers and professors make reading so much more dutiful and good-for-you than it ought to be, but also because the whole environment of school is simply alien to what long-form reading has been for almost all of its history.
Rarely has education been about teaching children, adolescents, or young adults how to read lengthy and complicated texts with sustained, deep, appreciative attention—at least, not since the invention of the printing press. When books were scarce, the situation was different: The North African boy who later became known to history as St. Augustine spent countless hours of his education poring over, analyzing word by word, and memorizing a handful of books, most of them by Virgil and Cicero; this model was followed largely because no one had many books, so each one was treated as precious. Augustine’s biographer Peter Brown has commented that some of Augustine’s intellectual eccentricities are the product of “a mind steeped too long in too few books”—something that can be said of almost nobody today.
Even after Gutenberg, this assumption of scarcity persisted, as George Steiner has noted in an anecdote about one of the leading scholars of the Renaissance: “The tale is told of how Erasmus, walking home on a foul night, glimpsed a tiny fragment of print in the mire. He bent down, seized upon it and lifted it to a flickering light with a cry of thankful joy. Here was a miracle.”
Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. His literary and cultural criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, The American Scholar, and the Oxford American. His books include The Narnian, Original Sin: A Cultural History, A Theology of Reading, and most recently The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.