Monday, July 16, 2007

On Reading

I know this is going to make me sound like either a grump or an old fuddy-duddy, but I pretty much agree with this sentiment:

...all around me, I see adults reading J.K. Rowling's books to themselves: perfectly intelligent, mature people, poring over "Harry Potter" with nary a child in sight. Waterstone's, a British book chain, predicts that the seventh and (supposedly) final volume, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," may be read by more adults than children. Rowling's U.K. publisher has even been releasing "adult editions." That has an alarmingly illicit sound to it, but don't worry. They're the same books dressed up with more sophisticated dust jackets -- Cap'n Crunch in a Gucci bag.

...before I can suggest what one might learn from reading a good novel, they pop the question about The Boy Who Lived: "How do you like 'Harry Potter'?"

Of course, it's not really a question anymore, is it? In the current state of Potter mania, it's an invitation to recite the loyalty oath. And you'd better answer correctly. Start carrying on like Moaning Myrtle about the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes, and you'll wish you had your invisibility cloak handy. Besides, from anyone who hasn't sold the 325 million copies that Rowling has, such complaints smack of Bertie Bott's beans, sour-grapes flavor.

I think Ron Charles, editor of the Washington Post's "Book World" section, knows he sounds a little fussy. But his column isn't really an attack on the Harry Potter phenomenon. His opening salvo against Harry Potter turns into a lamentation of the fact that many Americans don't read anymore, and when they do read, it's unchallenging, uncritical works that are essentially the book equivalent of TV. Of course, lamentations by books critics of the reading habits of the masses have probably been around as long as the printing press, but it's true that most of us are as lazy about reading as we are about anything else that's difficult and rewarding(except for Wise Man Nat-Wu, who has a whole blog about books here.) Most of my childhood was spent wrapped up in books, and once I got older and discovered science fiction it wasn't uncommon for me to read a book a week, or more. Now I'm lucky to finish a book once every couple of months or so (if that) and I have to admit that since I get to read so little, I tend to gravitate towards books that will keep me entertained, not books that will challenge and enlighten me. I hope to reverse that trend towards less and less reading eventually, but it's unlikely to happen soon.

Of course, I do spend a significant amount of time online reading, something that I think is a necessity for anyone who blogs about any current affairs topic. Unfortunately most of that reading is of short articles, the sort of reading that only encourges the short attention span that makes it difficult to engage in longer and more substantial works. There's really only one cure for that, and it's to simply pick up a book and force yourself to forge through it. But then, that sounds like work, not pleasure, doesn't it?

Oh and for what it's worth, I really don't get the whole Harry Potter phenomenon either.

1 comment:

Nat-Wu said...

I'm not going to bemoan the current Harry Potter craze, although I agree the books are just not that great. J.K. Rowling is indisputably one of the most average mega-authors that has ever existed, and in some sections her writing is as boring as the beginning of the book of Matthew (you know, "And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias").

Still, I do think Potter is passable literature, even for adults. However, I think this Potter mania is simply a holdover from the excitement with which the first book or two was greeted simply because it was children's fantasy when the choices in children's fantasy were slim. And it was halfway decent, not too childish but not too adult.

I believe reading fiction is as important as reading non-fiction, because there's a misconception that fiction isn't true. But fiction can teach you a lot about life that non-fiction can't. I read plenty of both, as you'll see if you look at my book blog. I read a heck of a lot more than I put on there too. I get 2, 3, sometimes 4 books a month in, and I always alternate between fiction and non-fiction, and I learn just as much from both. I think the decline in reading isn't because of other distractions. I mean, reading a book never competed with playing football or basketball or simply running around outside, which are all things I don't do now but I don't get any more read than when I did do those things. Don't blame video games. If kids weren't playing those, they were playing something else with their friends.

And don't give me this "golden age of reading" bs either. Newspapers were huge 100 years ago because there was no alternative. Then came radio, then tv. Newspapers shrank. And now you can get all your news online, and newspapers are suffering again. Does that mean people are consuming less news? I don't think so, although tv news is almost worthless.

Was there a time in which most Americans were used to sitting down reading books? Come on, when I read books about people from 100 years ago, most of them didn't read for leisure either. And I know that out of my grandparents, only one liked to sit down with a book and read. Maybe it's just that the portion of the population that are readers are reading different things now. Maybe we're just spoiled for choice.

Anyway, what is most disturbing to me is this trend towards homogeneity among readers. I read a wide variety of books and I almost never read anything right after it comes out (not even Harry Potter, although I did read the new Khaled Hosseini, which I'll be reveiwing soon). I'm still tackling classics too. I can't understand those people who only want to read a few authors or only want to read new books. It confuses me. We're seriously in danger of losing really good literature if the only thing that can make it onto paper are blockbusters that millions of people read. Hopefully the internet can remedy that too, but so far there's been even less of a literary revolution because of the internet than there has been of the music industry even though music companies are actively struggling against changing! Oh well. We'll see.