Introduction: John Olson, whose book of poems Backscatter was reviewed here two weeks ago, asked that I post the following essay that he wrote. Olson has no blog or website. I’m very happy to help out. An earlier version was published last year in the magazine First Intensity, # 22 (Fall 2007).
If you are reading this, you are not the audience I am trying to reach. The audience I am trying to reach is a vague demographic of people I imagine behind the wheel of a leviathan Hummer or SUV blathering inanities on a cell phone. But this is glib. I really don’t know who they are. Perhaps I have met one or two but the conversation didn’t proceed far enough to discover whether they read books or not. There have been many occasions in which, in response to the usual question about what one does for a living, I have answered that I am a writer, which brings the conversation to a listless, awkward halt. My interlocutor looks embarrassed, at a loss as to what to say. Perhaps they aren’t sure what a writer is. Perhaps they assume that as a writer, I really don’t make a living, I just happen to support myself by some mysterious means while indulging in this very strange and eccentric habit called writing. The later assumption is the correct one. But the conversation has already ended and my interlocutor (who would not know the meaning of the word ‘interlocutor’) has moved on to another conversation.
The people to which I am referring are aliterates: people who can read, but choose not to.
I despise them. Detest them. Abhor them, loathe them, hate them.
I hate them because they are allowing our democracy to erode. I hate them for aiding and abetting the degradation of everything of value in this country. I hate them for Bush and Britney Spears and Sarah Palin and Wal-Mart. I hate them for the Patriot Act and cell phones and the death of solitude. I hate them for attention deficit disorder and colony collapse disorder and the lack of disorder. I hate them because the things I care most about in life are being daily shat upon by these mentally lazy shop-a-holics and Paris Hilton wannabes.
“The spread of illiteracy and aliteracy (the ability without the inclination to read) has, at long last, become visible as a national crisis,” wrote Neil Postman in Conscientious Objections. And that was 1993. The situation since then has become exponentially worse.
“The illusion that speed is better is slowly killing off reading for pleasure or reading in depth,” writes Edward E. Gordon in his essay “The Incredible Shrinking Book: The Waning of Print Reading and Its Consequences for America.” “Faster is better technology tells us. The pervasiveness of all sort of tech-gadgets, useful or not, is conditioning us to believe in their infallibility -- when they work! Therefore, slowly reading print text seems like a waste of time to many people.”
This comes as no surprise to me. I’ve become used to seeing the “pod people” as they sleepwalk through the shopping malls, commute to their jobs at Microsoft, and conduct conversations on their hands-free cell phones like pixilated schizophrenics at a startup jobs fair. Even so, I was stunned, when I read Charles Johnson’s essay in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer several weeks ago, that “only thirty-one percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it.” Which begs the question: how are these dolts managing to graduate? Who is giving these grotesques a passing grade? What is the point of going to a college or university at all?
In Rethinking College Education, George Allan argues that “the current goal-orientation of America’s colleges and universities has undermined the very nature of higher education.” He shows that while colleges historically may have been based on a religious sense of mission or on the Enlightenment’s commitment to rational inquiry, “today’s universities have become resource centers organized to serve the needs of a diverse customer base of students. In its commitment to giving students what they want, this model of higher education not only neglects the broadening and deepening of minds, it encourages students to recognize the validity of numerous points of view without ever learning to interact creatively with them.”
In sum, you could get a better education from a comic book.
In a culture (and I use that term very loosely) full of information, books, magazines, newspapers, the Internet, libraries, bookstores, museums, and universities, why would anyone choose not to read? I mean, apart from medicine labels, blogs, MySpace, household cleansers, and street signs.
I have no answer. I find it utterly baffling. It is as if I sat at a table and watched someone given a plate of truffles (Joyce, Melville, Stein, Dickinson) and a plate of dog poop (Danielle Steel, Dean Koontz, Oprah’s Picks, Doctor Phil, My Pet Goat) and that someone went right for the dog poop, smiling imbecilely as they chewed away.
Some of these people don’t read because they have to hold down two or three jobs and don’t have the time to read, or are simply too exhausted, or what little time they have must be spent with their children.
Others are content to surf the Internet; but please note, that’s surfing, not reading. As for Oprah’s Picks or Doctor Phil, et al., that isn’t reading. That’s television on paper. I would include Harry Potter in that bunch.
Sorry kids. But Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver’s Travels and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola are way better than Harry Potter. These books have actual ideas in them. The authors of these books have labored hard to make sure the words flow in a manner that is graceful when the subject is graceful, rough and hard when the action is rough and hard, and are in every possible manner vivid and alive. In other words, the words are important. What am I saying? The words are everything. Sure it’s great that kids are reading, at all. But it’s mostly adults I see reading Harry Potter.
Always be wary of books that sell a lot. There is usually a reason they sell a lot. They entertain, but do nothing to challenge the intellect of the reader. The words are intended to be transparent, like windows. Words are not windows. Words are skin. Words have the same shine and click as billiard balls. They are hard, like dimes and knuckles. Soft like wax. Sleek as feathers. Reverie is the flotation of thought. Words are the raft.
Let us assume an ideal situation: a non-reader comes to me full of wistful receptivity and says “I feel you’re on to something here. I feel empty. There is a hole in my life. I’m fed up with the World Wide Web. I’m all ears. What can you tell me that will make want to read books?”
Books are wonderful. They are time machines. They can transport you elsewhere. They are full of enchantment. They will dilate your mind until it grows shiny with speculation. Turns amethyst with dazzling constructions. Glides over mountains. Marinates into bells. Sprawls into reverie. Opening a book is like going to sea. Sounds have shapes. And the shapes will lick your mind until it becomes huge with thought. There is nothing better than words. Words in print. Words fleshed out in ink. Words pirouetting in the mind. Images so vivid they brim with heat and thicken into trowels of sound.
You can get lost in books. Find yourself in books. Boil philosophies out of books. But it takes effort. You will need to learn how to concentrate. How to reflect. How to mull. How to think critically and scrupulously. How to weigh thoughts with the slow muscles of time. How to ponder what the words are saying and agree or disagree with them. Challenge them. Scrutinize them. Bounce them. Squeeze them. Chew them. Wrestle them.
Then, when you are so engorged with ideas and meanings and passion and blood, you will want to sit down and write. And everything you’ve read will ovulate into sonatas. The large silent music of thought.
-- John Olson