A common reader

Throughout his “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” Harold Bloom riffs on the falling from academic favor his aesthetic critical view. The riffs underscore his concerns for the deterioration of education. Yet he insists there’s still a common reader out there who cares: “Common readers, and thankfully we still possess them, rarely can read Dante; yet they can read and attend Shakespeare” (p. 3).

Who is this common reader? Is he the same reader Salinger dedicated “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters…” to: “…an amateur reader still left in the world – or anybody who just reads and runs…”?

But we love hearing the great Bloom blowing like Lear against the storm, against the “institutional purveyor of literature… happily proclaiming its death” (p. xviii), who lives in “our self-defiled academies” (p. 3), promoting an “arbitrary and ideologically imposed contextualization… – those critics who value theory over the literature itself” (p. 9), Bloom hoping against hope that Shakespeare will survive “the current debasement of our teaching institutions” (p.17), hope based on the “common reader [who] continues to regard Shakespeare’s persons as being more natural than those of all other authors” (p. 52).

Who is this common reader, who has now read not only Shakespeare, but all other authors (excepting Dante), and can compare? Is Bloom’s common reader Bourdieu’s working class, given a cultural transfusion, turning into “petty bourgeois subscribing to the Bolshoi” (An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, p. 82)?

“Anything goes in the current scholarly criticism of Shakespeare” (Bloom, p. 78), but does the common reader also read current scholarly criticism? To whom is Bloom writing, “since deep reading is in decline, and Shakespeare… now vanishes from the schools…” (p. 715)? Indeed, in any case, “It is no longer possible for anyone to read everything of some interest and value that has been published on Shakespeare,” but we have Bloom, who does not “…mistake political and academic fashions for ideas” (p. 716).

And where did Harold Bloom ever run into a common reader? On the Yale campus? Never mind. A common reader still has a chance to meet Harold Bloom, and for that, we are grateful.

What will happen to books?

If everyone stops reading, what will happen to all of the books? Two suggestions come to mind, one from “The Time Machine,” by H. G. Wells (1895), the other from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1953).  

In the Palace of Green Porcelain, the Time Traveller wanders “… out of that gallery and into another and still larger one, which at the first glance reminded me of a military chapel hung with tattered flags. The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough” (chap. 8, p. 103).   

The first “Time Machine” movie (1960) contains two scenes worth mentioning that are not in the book. The talking rings scene was suggested by record albums, but, in a current reading, the rings are predictive of CD’s; the other scene is the crumbling book in the Time Traveller’s hands, and his sweeping of the books on a shelf into dust as his Eloi companion, Weena, looks on, with no comprehension. The Time Traveller returns home, tells his story, then returns to the future – in the movie, with three books (which books, we don’t know), but in the book, he’s seen preparing to leave, “a small camera under one arm and a knapsack under the other” (chap. 12, p. 137), but what’s in the knapsack, we don’t know.   

Ray Bradbury, in “Fahrenheit 451,” imagined a different, but similarly bleak, future for books, one in which books are illegal, and if found, are burned by special firemen – for everything else in this future society is fireproof. But at the end of the book, the fireman Montag, now a fugitive on the run, having betrayed with books and deserted the force, discovers a band of outlaws living outside the city: “We’re book burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they’d be found. Microfilming didn’t pay off; we were always traveling, we didn’t want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it.”  

McLuhan, “The Medium is the Massage:” “’Authorship’ – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity – was practically unknown before the advent of print technology… the invention of printing did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a public – a reading public… the idea of copywrite…was born…As new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression” (pp. 122-123).      

More on the reading crisis

CQ Researcher has just published a study on the reading crisis. I’ve copied a summary below. Cross-reference to previous post regarding Caleb Crain’s December 24 New Yorker article, “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?” Crain’s article is listed in the CQR bibliography. CQ Researcher can be accessed through most college library database services, or try your local county library (Multnomah provides CQR). Of particular interest are the opposing viewpoint articles at the end of the CQR report, by poet Dana Gioia and Games2Train CEO, Marc Prensky. 

Reading Crisis?” by Marcia Clemmitt, February 22, 2008  

Do today’s youth read less than past generations?

The number of Americans who read for pleasure has been dropping for decades, and now recent data show the lowest levels ever, especially among Americans ages 15 to 24. At the same time, reading scores among teenagers are dropping. Some literacy experts are declaring the situation a crisis. They warn that with fewer fluent, habitual readers, America may soon lack not only the skilled workers needed for an information-based economy but also the informed voters crucial to democracy. Others dismiss such views as alarmist, arguing the data don’t capture the large amount of online reading today, especially by young adults. Technology experts also note that computers and video may be simply changing the form of literacy needed today, just as the printing press and typewriter did in ages past. While book reading formed the core of 20th-century literacy, in the 21st century literacy is more likely to mean writing blogs and instant messages as well as skimming online video and audio, along with text, to gather information.

  • Do young people read less than in the past?
  • Is there a literacy crisis?
  • Will harm be done if new technologies crowd out traditional reading?

Live Reading, Patricia Marx

At Powell’s on Hawthorne last night, Patricia Marx read from her national bestseller, newly released in paperback, “Him Her Him Again the End of Him.” In addition to reading from and talking about the book, Patricia talked about her experiences writing for Saturday Night Live, Rugrats, and the New Yorker. The small audience of about twenty readers, warmly bundled for the freezing windchill outside, enjoyed the reading, sitting on folding chairs, in the small open space between the music and crime sections. 

Patricia did not read from notes, speaking discursively, in a style suggesting someone thinking aloud. She lacked confidence in her reading – or feigned this – at one point trying to play a recording of the book, but unfamiliarity with a new stereo dashed the plan, and she returned to reading with her own voice. But the audience preferred the author’s own even if perhaps poor voice to a recording; that’s why the readers came. 

In part from audience prompts, she mentioned advice she found useful for her writing. Paraphrased in the bullets below, the advice seems to inform her approach to writing: 

1.      Write a book only you can write;

2.      Surprise your reader;

3.      Don’t waste words;

4.      Write and go (she doesn’t work from an outline). 

Against this reasonable, practical advice, she said she wrote the book nights, over a period of approximately a year and a half. She came across as a working writer, a non-academic – though she was one of the first women on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon. Awakening to the opportunity to attend a live reading by a working writer in a small group setting is really the reason for this post.

Here’s the link to the Powell’s calendar. http://www.powells.com/calendar.html


On Reading Well

In discussion last night we asked what makes for a good writer, what characterizes good writing, how do we recognize good writing. And so we talked about what makes good writing good. The discussion was lively, full of ideas, suggestions, and opinions. We stacked boxes of clarity in the back corner. Someone brought in bowls of mixed claims to snack on, and we helped ourselves to a refreshing punch from a glass bowl filled with assumptions.  

Then we asked what makes for a good reader, what characterizes good reading, how do we recognize good reading. And so we talked about what makes good reading good. But the discussion was chilly, quiet – only one light box of definitions, few suggestions, and thinly scattered opinions. The snacks ran out and the party seemed over. 

Writing is learned while writing, and probably in no other way. Memorization of all the many rules will not guarantee good writing. But we are not born pen in hand, fingers on a keyboard, or standing in front of an audience, our argument committed to memory and practiced. If bad writing is often the evidence of bad thinking, does bad reading result in bad writing? A good writer is a good reader. A good reader is a good proofreader. But what do we proofread for – for our own comprehension and understanding of what’s going on? But even if we can read something good with success, does it follow we can write something good with equal success? It’s possible that a good reader is, first, an imaginative reader, one who reads with imagination; but what do we mean by imagination, childhood wonder, or Wallace Stevens’s reading lamp (orange sun in his clear blue sky), the one unconcerned that we might not get it, for we may not even stop to think there’s something to get, that that’s what it’s all about, the other concerned with reality. Many of us fear writing – just as we might fear speaking before groups; do we fear reading in similar ways? How do we get over these fears?

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser says “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English” (p. 9). Then, without warning, he accuses the reader of being “someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds…” (p. 9). We suppose Steven Toulmin meant something similar when he said, “The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.” Nevertheless, much reading does require effort, supreme effort to read Stevens, to use one of his words, though of course Toulmin was probably not speaking of poetry, but even so, Stevens’s essays are just as difficult as his poetry; anyway, Toulmin also makes it plain he doesn’t want people using his ideas dogmatically, and another of what he calls his “mottoes” is “no theory is self-validating.”

We are working on keeping our posts short, around 500 words seems right for our purpose, but if we don’t get the right 500 words in the right order we find that what we’ve written often sounds too cryptic; nevertheless, we end now with the following, from A. W. Ward’s “Dickens”:        

“Dickens…perceived that in order to succeed as a reporter of the highest class he needed something besides the knowledge of shorthand. In a word, he lacked reading; and this deficiency he set himself to supply as best he could by a constant attendance at the British Museum. Those critics who have dwelt on the fact that the reading of Dickens was neither very great nor very extensive, have insisted on what is not less true than obvious; but he had this one quality of the true lover of reading, that he never professed a familiarity with that which he knew little or nothing” (p. 10).  

“Inasmuch as he was no great reader in the days of his authorship, and had to go through hard times of his own before, it was well that the literature of his childhood was good of its kind, and that where it was not good it was at least gay. Dickens afterwards made it an article of his social creed, that the imagination of the young needs nourishment as much as their bodies require food and clothing; and he had reason for gratefully remembering that at all events the imaginative part of his education had escaped neglect” (p. 4). 

Ward, A. W. (1882). Dickens. London: Macmillan and Co. p. 10. Digitalized by Google:

Olson, Gary A. “Literary theory, philosophy of science, and persuasive discourse: Thoughts from a neo-premodernist.” [interview with Stephen Toulmin] JAC: Journal of Advanced Composition 13.2 (1993): 283-310.

Vocabulary Building

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Our reading vocabulary is probably larger than our speaking vocabulary. Our writing vocabulary might be larger than our speaking one, but probably is not as large as our reading one. The best way to improve our vocabulary is by reading. But what do we mean by improve vocabulary? More words? Better words? Big words? But what do we mean by better words? If two different words mean the same thing, what difference would it make which we use? Do we mean better words for certain situations – for we sometimes find ourselves at the proverbial loss for words, depending on who’s in on the conversation or the nature of the discussion? Maybe by improving our vocabulary we simply mean increasing the frequency of when we seem to be in possession of the right word at the right time. If that’s what we mean, we might need more words, not necessarily big words – but right words; where and how do we find and master more words that are useful, not too big, but just right?

The best way to build vocabulary is by reading with a dictionary close by (reading what we’ll save for a later post). However, building vocabulary by reading can be a slow process, and so we offer, not, hopefully, in the spirit of the age of instant gratification, but in the spirit of efficiency, and utility, the Funk and Lewis, “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.” We know – sounds like Charles Atlas or Jack LaLanne for the tongue. But this is an effective book, and offers the same formula Atlas and LaLanne offered: focus on exercise and diet. Numerous editions, with exercises, so you need a fresh copy.

Opening dialog above is from Lewis Carroll’s ”Through the Looking Glass” (originally published in 1871), Chapter VI, Humpty Dumpty.

n+1 clips The Believer’s sneakers

n+1‘s review of The Believer accuses McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers of failing to transcend childhood (i.e. go beyond his roots) – but entanglement in one’s own roots is an honest place to start writing (note the unstated assumptions throughout the n+1review, including one should transcend childhood, childhood being peopled by children – apparently not a good place to be).

Eggers, in the San Francisco tradition of Jack London (and, n+1 gives us, Eric Hoffer), lives and writes in the real world. n+1 compares The Believer to Mad Magazine, casting Eggers in the role of adult child. n+1‘s evidence?: A writing tutor program for children called 826 Valencia founded and worked by Eggers and other volunteers – to teach writing to children. Apparently, things don’t get more childish than that in n+1‘s world.

We have subscribed to and have been reading The Believer since its inception, and look forward to each issue, but we have now added n+1 to our reading stack. And while we’ve not quite reached the point where we might want to renew our Mad subscription, our recent review of its web site, suggested by n+1, found no shortage of adult content.

For a complete review comparing n+1 to The Believer see A. O. Scott in the New York Times.

Reading declines, unobtrusively

Caleb Crain’s article in the December 24 issue of the New Yorker reports on a decline in reading, discusses the causes and effects of declining reading skills, and speculates on what a future readerless society might be like. Titled “Twilight of the Books,” the article asks, “What will life be like if people stop reading?”  

When asked in a Paris Review interview, in 1972, about the future of the written word, Jerzy Kosinski described reading novels as an unusual, masochistic act. Literature, in Kosinski’s view, lacked television’s ability to soothe. He believed television was the enemy of books. But then the lovely E. L. Mayo poem, “The Coming of the Toads,” also about TV, suggests a political outcome, a Marxist marvel:

“The very rich are not like you and me,”
Sad Fitzgerald said, who could not guess
The coming of the vast and gleaming toads
With precious heads which, at a button’s press,
The flick of a switch, hop only to convey
To you and me and even the very rich
The perfect jewel of equality.  

Mayo, E. L. (1981). Collected Poems. Kansas City: University of Missouri.

Kosinski’s code name for his short novel “Being There,” he tells us in the interview, was “Blank Page.” With the internet, Mayo’s equality includes read/write capabilities and potentials. Kosinski describes his own prose as unobtrusive. Today’s younger students are busily texting one another on their cell phones in a sub-text that is certainly unobtrusive.