Several recent articles appearing online have pointed to a couple of burning questions about book-reading in this overstuffed era: Why do people buy books they have no intention of reading? And, how can one ever find the time to read a book at all?
The first question is raised by Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, who claims to have come up with a metric for "the summer non-read, the book that you pick up, all full of ambition, at the beginning of June and put away, the bookmark now and forever halfway through chapter 1, on
Ellenberg's essay relates, indirectly, to a couple of articles on the issue of how to squeeze in serious reading amid all the other demands on one's time. In the New York Review of Books, British novelist Tim Parks ponders how contemporary fiction will adapt to "the conditions in which we read today."
Being "exposed to the seductions of email and messaging and
Devoted readers all have their own strategies to deal with this challenge. CUNY political scientist Corey Robin, who writes at Crooked Timber that "the reason I find it so difficult to read these days, now years, is the internet," takes his reading to the New York subway, riding the rails for three or four hours at a time, bearing only a book and a pen (for making notes on the pages).
Parks predicts that the grand sweep of finely crafted prose will be the element of literary writing that gives in. "The novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out.
My strategy is to read for pleasure in bed, sequestering an hour or two at the end of the day with my Kindle. The computer is turned off, the
The device, indeed, lends itself to just the sort of books Parks thinks are doomed. In the last few months I've read George Eliot's "Middlemarch" (a revelation), Faulkner's "Light in August" (revisited after about 40 years), and "War and Peace" (reread for about the seventh time, still bats a homer). My device holds in its digital guts, awaiting my summons, the complete works of Joseph Conrad, the complete Sherlock Holmes, and all of Dickens.
But the real question evoked by Ellenberg, Parks and Robin is whether these challenges to serious reading are really so new. The big bestseller purchased as a sort of totem and left unread on the coffee table has been around as long as I can remember. In my formative post-college years, the leading example was David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest," some 700 pages about the run-up to the
"The Best and the Brightest" was on the bookshelf of every member of my intellectual/social circle, the striations on the spine never deeper than about a third of the way through. Garry Trudeau lampooned Halberstam's output of weighty, unreadable tomes in a "Doonesbury" strip in 1979, when he has Halberstam boasting of writing "massive books, big, very big, towering best sellers....The kind of books about which men like to say, 'I own them.'"
And tripe fiction has competed with serious literary efforts for readers' attention for even longer. The alarming subliteracy of the typical bestselling novel is surely not, um, a novel phenomenon, is it? The example of the day is Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch." (Full disclosure: I am not the target audience for this book.)
"The Goldfinch" has been widely panned as a literary effort -- Francine Prose in the New York Review found its craftsmanship so sloppy she was driven to wonder, "Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?" That hasn't kept it from being both a big bestseller and a
Even the greatest authors have tried to balance popular taste with the higher callings of craft. Faulkner is famous for claiming to have deliberately fashioned his sixth novel, "Sanctuary" (1931) as a crass potboiler, including a graphic rape scene and other depravity. "It was deliberately conceived to make money," he declared. "I took a little time out ... invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks." His publisher responded, "Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail.''