The Reading Crisis Revisited: Amazon and the Gatekeepers Against the Wall

Mark McGurl has a new book out. I enjoyed and reviewed his previous book “The Program Era,” here, and his new work, “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon,” which appears to revive the Reading Crisis theme I first started following over at Caleb Crain’s site, is reviewed by Benjamin Kunkel in a recent Bookforum post: Sense and Saleability: How Amazon changed the way we read. After reading the Kunkel review, I don’t feel I need to read the new McGurl take.

First, it’s still too early to say what’s really going on or how dramatically it’s affected our reading, particularly the reading of the common reader (who seems to persist, in spite of the odds). Second, Mcluhan, who explains the effects of the printing press, and predicts a long time ago now the current reading crisis (not to mention a plethora of other ideas), I still find more convincing. And while McLuhan did not personally look forward to the changes in literacy his theories explained or predicted, he didn’t necessarily feel the world would be a worse place as a “global village.”

In any case, if I’m reading Kunkel correctly, what today’s gatekeepers seem to want protecting turns out to have been cut off only in its infancy:

Between the Great Recession and 2019, the number of undergrads majoring in English shrank by more than a quarter, and it’s difficult to imagine the pandemic has reversed the trend. Meanwhile, over approximately the same dozen years, professors in English and other literature departments have more and more bent their attention away from the real or alleged masterpieces that formed the staple of literature courses ever since the consolidation of English as a field of study in the 1930s, and toward more popular or ordinary fare. Sometimes the new objects of study are popular books in that they belong to previously overlooked or scorned genres of “popular fiction,” such as crime novels, sci-fi, or horror: this is popularity from the standpoint of consumption. And sometimes they are popular books in the different sense that they are written, in huge quantities, by authors with few if any readers, whatever the genre of their work: this is popularity from the standpoint of production.

Bookforum, Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

Theory and the Social Sciences, not to mention Reagan as governor of California ruining a good thing for the children of laborers who might have somehow discovered literature in the 50’s and 60’s and where McGurl now sits as public intellectual gatekeeper at Stanford, presumably with small cohorts of readers filling sandbags, had already altered how we read and precipitated the slide of the English Major, still a baby if born as recently as 1930. Amazon has not changed anything, at least not having to do with literature.

Meantime, James Lardner posts a recent Gatekeeper entry on the New Yorker online site, lamenting and lambasting the so called for profits (as if schools like the factory at UCLA pumping out Phds in the 60’s and 70’s is not de facto a for profit).

But not all English majors are created equal, and this one wishes he would have become a plumber like his father (having never read a book, good or bad) wanted him to become. And then he wouldn’t be sitting here writing a post no one will read on a subject few care about when he should be down in the basement checking that the plumbing didn’t freeze last night.

5 Comments

  1. Maybe a little metaphor. Re: Pluming … not too long ago I asked a competent plumber, who fixed a problem with my heating system, whether he preferred new or old houses to work in. Definitely old houses, like yours, he said. Popular cheap materials in newly built houses, like plasterboard etc. are a nightmare when trying to access pipes.
    Short term profit only serves those who don’t have to deal with future consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yeah, the new dwellings that don’t breathe come with new issues. Same with old cars, much easier to work on. The meek shall inherit the earth. The homeless already have.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dan Hen says:

    You might have been a successful plumber but no doubt would still be a reader/writer. I should have been an English major in college , but remain neither that nor a plumber . I know a guy who was a baker and later became a teacher . Are you a plumber at heart dreaming of being a reader/writer , or are you a reader/writer dreaming of being a plumber ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for reading and comment, Dan. LOL at yr last line. And you are a handyman! Best of all worlds. At home drinking beer and shooting pool in the pub or puttin on the style and hobknobbing with the elites, reading t s Eliot or bukowski. Happy new ears!

      Like

      1. Dan Hen says:

        Simply trying to navigate the new world . Ada and I are rapidly recovering from mild Covid and trying to get on a plane to Paris to care for her sis . No elites . Take care and be well . Hope your pipes don’t freeze .

        Like

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