Viewpoint: People Sí, Literati No!


According to William Bennett, secretary of Education and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the neglect of the humanities in our colleges and universities, to say nothing of our secondary schools, is a national scandal. According to Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, our society is now menaced not only by illiteracy—long a favorite whipping boy of educators and professional humanists—but also by "aliteracy," which means being able to read but choosing not to do so.

As a percentage of the total population, fewer people are reading books these days, either for information or for entertainment. There was a time when the only way to get certain kinds of information and entertainment was by reading. In those days, there were millions of people who therefore read, but for whom reading was not an end in itself. They read only as a means to an end, in order to get the information or the entertainment they wanted. Now such people can get what they want from television, so they don't spend as much time reading.

But, contrary to Bennett, Boorstin, et al., there is nothing intrinsically "better" about reading the latest news for oneself instead of listening while some other person reads it aloud. Nor is there anything intrinsically "better" about reading fiction instead of watching movies. After all, who is to judge how much detail any given individual wants in his information? Who is to judge what sort of story, and what sort of storytelling, will entertain him most satisfactorily? Each individual is the only qualified judge of these matters. For what would be the alternative? Having government decide for us?

Neither Mr. Bennett nor Mr. Boorstin has proposed any such thing. But it seems quite obvious that their great concern over the current state of reading is in large part a concern that Americans are reading the "wrong" things, for there is no getting around the fact that they are reading. Percentages aside, and speaking in absolute numbers, more books and periodicals are being published and read today than ever before in history.

Book reading has fallen off among some groups in the population, but periodical reading has been growing steadily. There no longer seems to be much of an audience out there for the "serious" novel, but the demand for certain kinds of "popular" fiction is growing dramatically. And any serious reader with an open mind can easily satisfy himself that there is real food for thought to be found in many of these "popular' works. All he needs to do is sample some of the best of the science fiction novels that have been published over the past few decades.

Nor is interest in fields like philosophy and history in a real overall decline. Fewer students are enrolling for the courses offered in these subjects in our colleges and universities, for reasons well explained a few months ago in the pages of this magazine by philosophy professor Max Hocutt ("Humanities' Ills," Oct.). But if readers are no longer interested in philosophy and history, how are we to account for the fabulous popular success of writers like Ayn Rand, Robert Pirsig, Seymour Hersh, and Robert Caro?

Publishers Weekly, the trade journal of the book industry, reported recently that nonfiction books consistently outsell fiction and that history and biography are among the three most popular types of nonfiction. People may not be reading the philosophers and historians who rate in academia and among the writers and readers of the New York Review of Each Other's Books, but they are reading philosophy and history, if not under the guidance of a professor, then under the guidance of their own taste.

"Taste" may seem a peculiar word to use in discussing the value of the humanities, but in fact taste is at the heart of the whole matter. Those who love the classic tradition of Western philosophy, art, literature, and social thought are passionate about that body of work, and the intensity of their passion leads many of them into the futile and unattractive business of proselytism. In this they are not fundamentally different from the devotees of running, the followers of the fitness craze, and the idolators of the computer who are all around us these days. All these people are hobbyists. Each of them has found what seems to be the ideal means of escaping boredom and finding pleasure. And it is natural and understandable that the most fervent among them should come at last to regard their avocation (for a lucky few, of course, it is also a vocation) as the central and dominant force in life, the repository of the ultimate essence of things, and the cornerstone of civilization.

But such zealots would do themselves a favor by learning that selling a product too hard can drive away even customers who might have been ripe for conversion. And they would do all of us a big favor by refraining from using our money—the taxes that underwrite the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Education, and the Library of Congress—to fund their campaign to shame us into abandoning our hobbies and taking up theirs.

Contributing Editor Jeff Riggenbach is a freelance writer whose own tastes run to literary criticism, classical music, and modernist fiction.