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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.

The Eloi and the Morlock

Reading Pierre Bourdieu last night, after looking thru ”The Time Machine” and “Fahrenheit 451″ yesterday.

“In the case of artists and writers, we find that the literary field is contained within the field of power where it occupies a dominated position. (In common and much less adequate parlance: artists and writers, or intellectuals more generally, are a ‘dominated fraction of the dominant class.’)” Bourdieu, Pierre. (1992). ”An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology” (p.104).

Wells ends ”The Time Machine” with a pessimistic vision of the future, more optimistic though than he probably considered: “And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man” (p. 141), for “The Eloi, like the Carlovingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility” (p. 89).

In “On Television,” we were struck by this Bourdieu thought: “There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness” (p. 21). Certainly not when you’ve got less than a minute to convey. Bradbury summarized in fiction the same power and effects of television that Bourdieu discusses in “On Television,” toward the end of Fahrenheit 451, in the scene where the police, unable to find the real Montag in the attention-span-time-requirement of the evening news, settle for an innocent, unknown citizen, and the television reports they’ve got Montag, while the real Montag is now uselessly free.

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?

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.