Thursday, December 27, 2007

More Responses to NEA Reading Report

The debate over the NEA's recent report "To Read or Not to Read" (which I opined on here) continues. Harvard English professor Leah Price weighed in on Sunday with an essay in the NYTimes Book Review, "You Are What You Read." Price makes several observations/critiques on the NEA report, but her main beef is this:

"Paradoxically, though, the N.E.A. shuns the literal workplace — and, by extension, any use of literacy for something other than disinterested pleasure. Its 2004 report, “Reading at Risk,” excluded not just nonfiction (giving credit for The Da Vinci Code but not The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), but also reading done 'for work or school.' This time around, while any genre of 'voluntary reading' counts, the second restriction remains in force. It takes some gerrymandering to make a generation logging ever more years in school, and ever more hours on the BlackBerry, look like nonreaders. ...

More fundamentally, the 'after' in which Game Boys displace James Joyce presumes a 'before' that never existed. Think of the most successful printer in 18th-century Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin. As James Green and Peter Stallybrass have shown, Franklin’s wooden press cranked out auction announcements, lottery tickets, handbills advertising runaway slaves and newspapers crammed with classified ads, as well as 'Bills of Lading, Bills of Sale, Powers of Attorney, Writs, Summons, Apprentices Indentures, Servants Indentures, Penal Bills, Promissory Notes, &c' (as one advertisement put it). Franklin also printed labels for medicine bottles, wrapping for soap and '500 advertisements about thread.' What he didn’t print, with a handful of exceptions, was anything we would recognize today as literature.

People read for many reasons, from the sublime (to save their souls) to the ridiculous (to avoid eye contact on the subway). Franklin’s example should remind us that what the N.E.A. calls 'reading for literary experience' has never been more than one use among many. A crucial one, for my money; but then, a white, female, nonincarcerated exerciser, volunteer, voter and English professor like me turns out to be statistically likely to think so."

I don't disagree with any of this; as I said myself, more reading is taking place in new and different ways, and that's fine. However, Price goes a bit too far in her conclusion: "The file, the list, the label, the memo: these are the genres that will keep reading alive. Whatever happens to the novel, we’ll always need a rule book." It is not simply the act of reading any words on a page (or a screen) that makes a culture literate and literary; emails, memos and lists are different animals entirely from novels, biographies, essays, &c. Blurring the distinction between those types of reading, as Price seems to do, hardly seems the way to go.

Another response to the report is Caleb Crain's "Twilight of the Books" in the current New Yorker. Caleb's been enhancing this excellent essay with some posts over at Steamboats, and I'll have comments on both the essay and the supporting materials later this week.