Books Are A Load of Crap

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An unusually thorough new survey by the US Census Bureau suggests that fewer than half of all Americans read novels, short stories, plays, or poetry, and only 56 percent read books of any kind. NEA chairman Dana Gioia calls the results "deeply alarming," and notes the high correlation of literacy to civic involvement, charity work, and good dental hygiene. New York Times reporter Bruce Weber (isn't he some kind of randy photographer?) speculates, predictably but no doubt accurately, that the result "does seem likely to fuel debate over issues like the teaching and encouragement of reading in schools, the financing of literacy programs and the prevalence in American life of television and the other electronic media."

Though the methodology seems sound, I wonder about these "Have you done X in the past 12 months?"-style questions. I've probably read more novels than Don Quixote himself, but I'd say there have been years when I haven't read any. Thinking back on the past year, I'd say I've only read four, which would probably put me toward the caboose in fiction reading, and doesn't accurately reflect my overall reading habits. You may counter that literacy is such a point of pride that people would be more likely to overestimate their own reading habits. But many Americans regard reading fiction as a waste of time (and they're probably right), and if anything would underestimate the amount of fiction-reading they do.

However, I'm willing to accept the accuracy of the survey, and even agree that there are real benefits to regular book-reading habits. But before this debate about "teaching and encouraging reading" heats up, I have to ask: Is there any message more widely distributed in America than the one about the importance of reading? Every school is festooned with posters of celebrities dipping into some book or other, every other minute of kids' television offers up some pious message about how great books are, every President and every First Lady travels the land reading in schools. (Though I think the controversy over President Bush and the seven minutes is idiotic, I'm disappointed one of his defenders hasn't pointed out that encouraging children to read is attending to important public business.) The message that Reading Is Fundamental has been received, over and over again. Please, Mr. Gioia, spend my money on something else.

Besides, as the artist currently known as Nick Gillespie pointed out way back when, even when you really do get people reading, somebody will still find room to complain.

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  1. When I was growing up, I collected and read comic books and didn’t enjoy reading the books assigned in English class. Now my Spider-Man comic collection is worth several thousand dollars (thank you, Tobey Maguire). In 11th grade, I had a good English professor who asked us to do a book report on a book you read over the Summer. Since I had only read comic books during the Summer, and he was an X-Men fan when he was a kid, he let me do my report on a Spider-Man story arc that occured over the Summer Spidey comics. That was pretty cool, and it was the most fun I had doing a book report.

    I think I was too young to appreciate and understand the greatness of some of the books I read in high school. I didn’t like the usual English-class assignment questions about “What was the author trying to say? What did this symbolize? Etc.” This seemed to take the enjoyment away from reading for me. I’ve since re-read many of those books and understood them much better now that I’m 30 years old and have more life experiences to bring to the table when reading these books.

    I’m thankful that my comic book reading maintained my enjoyment of reading during my childhood. I’d agree with others who posted here that the practice of reading is important; the medium of reading (be it novels, poetry, fiction, comic books, etc.) is less important.

  2. Why do a survey on reading and only asking about reading novels, poetry and the like. What about newspapers and magazines?

    The real — and patently obvious — answer is that the latter are not endowed by generous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the former are. If the NEA can convince enough Congresscritters that there’s a “Crisis in American knowledge of the literary arts,” that means more money for experimental novels and poetry slams.

  3. There was a period of about 5 years (mostly overlapped college) where I had stopped reading. I started to read some classic sci-fi that I had never gotten around to reading as well as some classics. It was pretty good, especially because I had the freedom to enjoy the book instead of on a search to find what my teacher was looking for. Reading again was like seeing an old friend. It’s fun and there’s plenty of wisdom in good fiction.

    One of the best things I ever did was to get my little sister to read Harry Potter books, which are pretty good. She was never a reader, but those books helped her find joy in reading and she’s been a pretty voracious reader ever since.

  4. ” I will admit that even I do not read as much as I did when I had endless days of summer vacation stretching out before me, but even busy as I am I find time to cram in the occasional bit of reading. If it is something you love, you will make time for it.”

    The purpose of reading fiction is personal entertainment. There is no lofty or noble purpose required for it. I used to read a lot more for entertainment years ago than I do now (which is hardly at all). One of the main reasons is that there are so many other competing entertainment options now than there were years ago. Digital cable with hundreds of channels, DVD’s, etc.

  5. I knew this whole movable type crap was just a fad. And don’t get me started on this Internet thingy . . .

  6. Take these two sentences:

    “Fred is as dumb as a bag of hammers and as lazy as a hound dog on a hot summer’s day.”

    “Fred is a gormless, indolent layabout.”

    Well, I suppose this is a matter of opinion then. Personally I find both versions of this sentence to be intolerable.
    The first because I’ve never been a huge fan of such comparison sentences. While saying someone is as “dumb as a bag of hammers” might seem amusing, it would only serve to confuse those who are still learning the language. Saying “Fred is a lazy idiot.? would be preferable.
    The second uses exclusively large words, and is therefore showing off. It might be possible there are people out there who would actually talk like that, and I pity them.

    Also, I meant that a larger vocabulary would be helpful to many people who seem to have a descriptive vocabulary that consists mostly of words like, “cool”, “dumb”, “big”,
    “little”…etc…
    Would it kill them to use “enormous”, “entertaining”, “idiotic”, and ?miniscule” sometimes?
    (And I’m sorry; I didn’t know “miniscule” was outdated, as I’ve been asked what that means many times)

  7. Dan,
    Actually, your first sentence uses a larger vocabulary because it has more words in it. 🙂

    Look, I don’t think anyone is saying that everyone should be required to study large books of SAT words all the time. But the point of language is to communicate, so it’s important to have discrete terms to convey subtly different meanings. Yes, that may mean that there’s more vocabulary to learn for someone being introduced to the language for the first time, but it also means that once you master the language, you can communicate the full nuances of your ideas.

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure that “most people” wouldn’t know what the words “discrete,” “convey,” and “nuances,” but I don’t think that makes them outdated, unless you’re using the word “outdated” to mean something very different than what most of us mean by it. Those words may be uncommon, or even pretentious, but that’s not the same as being “outdated.” I guess that illustrates how important it can be to have many different words for subtly different concepts.

  8. If your friends and acquaintances don’t know the term miniscule, you’re surrounded by gormless, indolent layabouts.

  9. …and you should defenestrate the fuck out of them.

  10. Gilbert Martin: You know, I bet even fewer Americans read news sources than novels. And I don’t know where you got the idea that anyone was comparing literature to magazines, newspapers, etc. Apples and oranges, my friend. They serve different purposes.

    matt: you seem to think that reading literature is always a luxury. For some of us it’s necessity, a compulsion. I barely watched TV through high school, but I did read an awful lot, even though I felt like I was missing out sometimes. Many of my peers did the opposite, and though they sometimes expressed regret that they didn’t have time to read, they simply didn’t feel the compulsion.

    And not to pick or anything, but eloquence is not tied to an extensive vocabulary, but to using what one has effectively, clearly and concisely. Eloquence isn’t overrated, but I agree that using more complicated language than necessary is a mistake. Read the Gettysburg Address: powerful ideas, eloquently expressed, and although the grammatical constructions are a little convoluted in places, there is no uncommon big word to be found.

    quoth mark: “There is no more sure-fire way to ruin a book than to assign it”

    quoth I: Ooo, watch those generalizations. I have definitely enjoyed books I read for classes. I don’t know what your school experience was like, but in the cases of myself and my brothers, teachers would expect us to read a certain number of books, and write a reading log, or a report, but we could choose the books ourselves, within in limits. Result: a 13 year old jock (male) who really likes All Quiet on the Western Front and Watership Down. Or it could just be my bad example.

    Aleana: Hail, fellow introvert! Sometimes some of us would really would prefer a book to people. It’s not antisocial, and I wouldn’t call it abnormal, though we are a minority not well understood by the majority of extroverts, who equate people with fun and being alone with being sad, and who can’t seem to understand that some people just Don’t. Like. Parties. If many Americans read little, maybe it’s partly because most Americans are extroverts who would rather spend more time with their friends.

    Dan: Brevity is the soul of wit. And I like the word gormless, though I don’t find use for it often. Some words we should use sparingly, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them at all. And what Amy said.

    JLB

  11. Erm, it’s minUscule.

  12. Over the course of my life I have swung like a pendulum (or a vigilante arachnid) through an arc of reading for recreation, from only fiction, to a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, to only non-fiction, and back again. It all depended on what else I had to read for school or work. Besides books, I love to read magazines, both online and on dead tree, and am even one of the few who has read magazine fiction on a regular basis. I used to never miss an issue of analog or the late, lamented Galaxy, and had a serious comics jones for many years.

    I have recently exited the bookselling industry, where the longterm trend has been for Americans to read more for self-improvement than for enjoyment. The popularity of both motivational and managerial tomes – everything from Peale to Iaccoca to Trump – not to mention actually useful business theory such as Deming’s work on quality control or the Sigma 7 approach popularized by GE, not to mention every sort of “how to” book, from mastering programming languages to doing your geneaology, shows that while many of us don’t read for the type of pleasure and enlightenment the literature professors espouse, we do read to improve ourselves. There is an intersection of sorts. Many a wannabe executive has been advised to read Sun Tzu’s Art of War or Machievelli’s The Prince. The phenomenon of the religious wing of bookselling can’t be ignored, either.

    There is also a bunch of lightweight junk of the One Minute Manager vein which may convey something useful, but needn’t be padded out into book form where a magazine article would do. Busy executives actually subscribe to services that deliver executive summaries of new books, just so they can keep up on trends, dismiss volumes that may not be worth their time, and cue them to ones that merit further study.

    In our modern, multitasking world, I find one of my most used skills to be the ability to read a paragraph in the time between a batter swinging and the pitcher delivering his next attempt to home plate while I “watch” the baseball on the TV. This sort of multi-attentioned reading may cause the literati to groan, but if I’m just pushing my eyeballs over some mediocre journalism containing some facts I need to know, it suffices. Reading something of real value requires more attention, of course.

    Kevin

  13. But many Americans regard reading fiction as a waste of time…

    Said while watching Survivor: All-Star and American Idol- after all, we prefer our fictions “reality-style”

  14. Yeah…I’m probably reading 20 to 30 pages of blogs, news and other internet esoterica per day. While I’ve started quite a few, I don’t think I’ve finished any books in a long, long while.

  15. Until a few months ago, I hadn’t found any fiction since Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE that was at all worth reading. A friend gave me a series of short novels that finally broke the losing streak: Joe R. Lansdale’s “Hap and Leonard” books. (SAVAGE SEASON, MUCHO MOJO, THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO, BAD CHILI, RUMBLE TUMBLE, CAPTAINS OUTRAGEOUS). A lot of folks would probably classify them as pulp, suspense, action, or something of the kind. For me, they’re just good characters, good morals, and fun stories. In sum, Hap is a white guy who dodged the draft, Leonard a black guy who went to Vietnam, and now they’re best friends and get each other into and out of trouble. Oh, and Leonard’s gay, but it hardly ever comes up, and when it does it is NOT handled in a “PC” fashion.

    The same friend also was responsible for me finally starting the REPAIRMAN JACK series, which so far lives up to its reputation.

  16. I spend all of my “reading” time on Physics and Programming texts.

    I read as many programming texts as possible online at sites like Books 24×7 which makes a lot more sense than toting around a couple thousand phonebook sized tomes on the delights of ADO programming (just in case I need it).

    I’m taking an Econ class in the fall and the prof has a pretty lengthy list of books that all executives, managers, and students should have read by age 30. I really don’t have time for that bullshit with summer classes and a full-time job, so I’m settling for the audiobook versions. Since my commute is only 15 minutes each way, I’m ripping them all to WMA so I can listen to them on a portable media player.

    What really irritates me is that by skimming Reason Hit & Run and other news sources during the day I already know orders of magnitude more about what’s going on in the world than anyone who has criticised the fact that I “don’t read (fiction)” – even the ones who spend Sunday Afternoon reading “The New Yorker” and leaving it prominently stacked on their coffee table alongside “Business 2.0”.

  17. Poor me: I don’t drive so I have an hour and a half or so on the train every day to read. I read maybe 25 novels a year. True, a lot of them aren’t “the classics”–horror (Koontz) or science fiction (Silverberg)–but I think any well-written fiction is beneficial to improve your vocabulary and writing skills.

  18. Americanos are Stoopid. PS: Buy my Book rite now!

  19. Give a hoot — read a book!

  20. Something interesting I heard from a friend concerning her highschool sophmore son:

    About 2 years ago he got into an arguement with his geometry concerning Euclidian geometry, and Einstonion physics, the teacher believed in the existence of straight lines as empirical reality, the student, quite rightly, attempted to introduce him to the existence of curved space, and the heavily degreed teacher became upset.

    While undergoing the modern version of chinese re-education that passes for physcology these days, the behaviour of reading books was listed as an introverted behaviour, and a sign of maladjustment.

    I am sorry, the schools may put up posters, but lets not kid ourselves that they actually want kids to learn.

    They might just learn what a bunch of arrogant and bizzare freaks their teachers really are.

  21. Why do a survey on reading and only asking about reading novels, poetry and the like. What about newspapers and magazines?

    I don’t see where reading the former is somehow “superior” to the latter.

    Someone who reads the Wall Street Journal every day is sure going to know a hell of lot more about what’s going on than someone who reads poetry collections or novels all day.

  22. but they’ll be a lot less eloquent.

    everything has a price! 🙂

  23. “NEA chairman Dana Gioia calls the results “deeply alarming,” and notes the high correlation of literacy to civic involvement, charity work, and good dental hygiene.”

    This is how this half-wit justifies the NEA, it promotes good oral hygiene. Dana baby, there is a difference between literacy and having the spare time to indulge in novels and poetry. Does she really think literacy is causal in charity and civic involvement? More likely poor mostly illiterate countries don’t have the resources or a population with this kind of spare time.

  24. Heh, when you do read books they start complaining that you aren’t reading the right kind. Most of my teachers tried to discourage me from reading so much SciFi and get me into the classics & literature.

    To make them happy I started reading and doing reporst on Wells & Verne. 🙂

    Part of the problem is that first they make reading a chore and then they discourage you from reading the “wrong” sort of books.

    Another part of the problem is the format that books are presented in. A lot of people don’t want to commit time to reading a large book, or carry it around. What about serialized novels? Dickins had most of his books serialized first. Read a chapter every week in your favorite magazine or newspaper. Oh well.

  25. “but they’ll be a lot less eloquent.”

    Eloquence is in the eye of the beholder.

  26. Is Jennifer on vacation?
    She would have the answer cold.

  27. dhex-
    “but they’ll be a lot less eloquent. everything has a price! :)”

    Eloquence is overrated. I’ve argued this with my European colleagues many times when they attack the average American vocabulary. The typical argument, how can one express every nuance of meaning and context without an exhaustive vocabulary. However, in the same conversation I consistently use commonplace word so that these non-native English speakers can understand. There is a democracy of language, if you would like to be understood by most it is necessary to use common words. Another argument, people are judged by the quality of their vocabulary. Maybee, but this is unfortunate. It seems more appropriate to judge people by the ideas expressed. When I hear a colleague using long and uncommonly used words it usually comes off as an exercise in ego. It is challenging to express complicated ideas in common speak. There are many Chinese nationals where I work and this is a daily exercise for me. It is satisfying to get a very complicated idea across to someone with a tenuous grasp on English. Perhaps it doesn’t compare to the self satisfaction that comes with memorizing unused and outdated speak.

  28. Madog’s right that schools make reading a chore. In school I would read many books in a week, but I never finished any of the english reading assignments. The books were so dull, and then, like some strip-mall crystal ball gazer, they wanted you to devine some deep meaning out of the book, exploring the motivations for the author. But don’t come up with something that isn’t what the teacher wants to hear, nooooooo. I didn’t think it was very worthwhile, but that might just make me a floccinaucinihilipilificator (and that shows where most of MY reading took place 😉 ).

  29. matt: i’m not a poetry fan myself. my wife is, but i find it hard to stick with. though i have a soft spot for yeats. but what i’m saying is that people get different things out of different types of reading, obviously. though discounting daily reading in the form of newspapers or blogs or whatever seems kinda dumb, and the NEA eats donkey cock, there’s a reflexive “fuck art” response that always shows up in these threads.

    so this is my reflexive “fuck fuck art” response.

    i’m pretty sure schools only exist to pound the fun out of you at an early age. and to continue the career of that fraud salinger. 🙂

  30. It’s interesting that schools think they can promote anything to kids, especially reading. There is no more sure-fire way to ruin a book than to assign it. Also, the natural(and healthy) contentiousness and skepticism of kids towards anything promoted by schools makes attempts to create a love of books unlikely to succeed.

  31. Why do people place such importance on the QUANTITY of books read? If someone has read 10 books in the past year and I’ve only read one, does that make me less intelligent, less likely to be civically involved, etc.? Maybe I was reading “The Brothers Karamazov” and the other person was reading Harlequin romance novels. Or maybe we’re both reading the same list of books but I am doing it carefully and taking notes while the other person is just letting his eyes skim off the pages.

    There’s a big difference between reading a lot of books and being well-read, and you can’t equate quantity with quality in a situation like this.

  32. Language is a beautiful thing, and language must be used to grow and be alive. A large vocabulary adds variety to a person’s writing and speaking. I’m sure most everyone here has winced when the person they are talking with uses the same phrases “You know?” “like,” “Dude!”, over and over.
    I also did some grading for my English teachers in school and the sheer repetition of small descriptor words was startling and disheartening.

    By this point in my life, I no longer expect most of the people around me to have as large a vocabulary as I. After all, when they were out and about making friends, dating and playing sports, I had my nose in a book. It only stands to reason that I am the abnormal one.

    However, more often I find that the “average” person I interact with has a frighteningly small vocabulary. I use words that are neither ?large? nor “outdated”, but all I get in return is a blank stare.

    And go around, ask your coworkers how often they read even a magazine or newspaper (the sports and funnies only do not count here), I will admit that even I do not read as much as I did when I had endless days of summer vacation stretching out before me, but even busy as I am I find time to cram in the occasional bit of reading. If it is something you love, you will make time for it.

  33. “But many Americans regard reading fiction as a waste of time (and they’re probably right), and if anything would underestimate the amount of fiction-reading they do.”

    Gads! One of my many pet-peeves are the wanna-be snobs who hold their collective noses in the air and proclaim “Well, *I* don’t read fiction” as if it made them a member of some intellectual elite while those who “waste their time” with a novel or short story are somehow a bunch of unwashed dullards. My ex-girlfriend is one of these pseudointellectuals and proclaimed that you can’t find “truth” in fiction, no matter who well it is written (this from a woman who zealously believed in astrology).

    I’m sorry, I’m all for self-education, but the notion that fiction offers nothing to literature is elitist and anal retentive. Your brain has to take a break from cold, cruel, reality from time to time. Granted, the forests, and the book shelves, are full of pulp, but there quite a few examples of excellent, imaginative fiction out there.

  34. A large vocabulary adds variety to a person’s writing and speaking.

    Take these two sentences:

    “Fred is as dumb as a bag of hammers and as lazy as a hound dog on a hot summer’s day.”

    “Fred is a gormless, indolent layabout.”

    Let’s examine the differences between those two sentences. The first is clearer, and more interesting to read; the second uses a larger vocabulary and will make most people roll their eyes at the speaker.

    It’s important to never forget that the purpose of communication is, well, communication, and not “vocabulary show and tell”. Use of obscure synonyms for everyday words doesn’t make your writing any clearer or any more entertaining. There isn’t a book in existance that would be improved by the use of a more obscure vocabulary — but there are countless books, including more than a few of the “classics”, that would be dramatically improved if they made use of a modern vocabulary.

    However, more often I find that the “average” person I interact with has a frighteningly small vocabulary. I use words that are neither ?large? nor “outdated”, but all I get in return is a blank stare.

    I hate to be the one to break this to you, but… when most of the people don’t know what a word means anymore, that means it’s outdated. What did you think the standard for “outdated” was, anyway? 🙂

  35. “While undergoing the modern version of chinese re-education that passes for physcology these days, the behaviour of reading books was listed as an introverted behaviour, and a sign of maladjustment.”

    I idea is that if a child wants to read instead of running with the rest of the pack, then that child won’t be properly socialized. Since all “normal” children want to socialize, there must, ergo, be something wrong with the kid.

    Of course, when I was in school, and the choice was given to me either to “socialize” with the animals who made my life a living hell from 7th grade to my Senior year in high school, or being “introverted” and reading the books I loved… you can figure out the rest.

  36. When I was in elementary school I used to read 2-3 books a week, more in the summer. Now I don’t have time for that kind of reading.

  37. With all the Blogs I have to keep up with, who has time for novels, poetries or plays? It’s all I can do to keep up with the conspiracies, strategies, and news of the day let alone the wordy analysis of all of the above. After all, Reality has overtaken Fiction, hasn’t it?

  38. Gads! One of my many pet-peeves are the wanna-be snobs who hold their collective noses in the air and proclaim “Well, *I* don’t read fiction” as if it made them a member of some intellectual elite while those who “waste their time” with a novel or short story are somehow a bunch of unwashed dullards.

    You should read Charles Portis’ The Dog of the South, whose narrator, a history TA proud to have read “32 lineal feet” of military history, loathes even the idea of reading fiction. At one point, he starts looking through a book in the lobby of a boardinghouse, and gets to page two before realizing disgustedly that it’s not only fiction but science fiction. As he says: “Halfway down the page some bird was calling up for a ‘helicab.'”

  39. I don’t read because I’m afraid the govt. might be monitoring me … yea that’s it …

  40. Its been my experience that there is a definite positive correlation between folks who read a lot and folks who lean libertarian and are interested in libertarian ideas.

    My non-fiction reading tastes, although not exactly catholic (note small “c”), are still very diverse. My faves include philosophy, politics; esp. libertarian stuff, science and history. I think I’m interested in too many things. For fiction, it’s the opposite. I mostly just do speculative fiction, aka scifi and cyfi.

    Favorite places on line include Reason.com, Antiwar.com, Sciencedaily magazine, Free market.net, Libertarian Futurist Society, New Scientist and Lew Rockwell.com. I also buy lots if periodicals.

    I’m very bookish. I read all the time. The largest room in my house is the library. (where I blog from) It was intended to be a super humongous, added-on-to, bedroom “suite”. I saw it and said, “yep, library”. I have so many books that once in a while God checks with me to see if I own one that he doesn’t. [ 🙂 Just a joke, no offence intended, I only have questions concerning religious matters and no answers. I have yet to read or hear a religious dogma that I am not skeptical of.]

    Book are cool cause they’re about ideas. People who read tend to be more interesting. Interesting = fun. Much of my social life is geared around book talks, discussion groups, etc, and I sometimes give book talks myself. It seems that best places to meet girls are bookstores and book talks. Second best places might be retro-new wave clubs but that’s a different thread. 😉

  41. Conerning the last sentence of my post…I don’t want to segue into anything but just permit me two words please: OINGO BOINGO!

    Ok, that’s out of my system.

  42. What interests me is the amount of literary professors who ignore reading outside of the academic context so they can keep up with Seinfeld. Oh, wait… thanks to the Marxoid ‘theory’ demons, they have to teach the sitcoms in class and read the Proust at home.

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