Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Majority of Simpletons

My problem is there simply isn't enough time for me to read, and I spend better than half my waking life reading. Not always books. I read magazine articles, I read stuff on the Internet--blogs and other interesting stuff, of which there is no end. I read the newspaper every day. And I read books. Both books for fun, which are most of them, and books of my profession, which is to say history and of which I sometimes have to write reviews. I cannot imagine life with books. I'm surrounded by books as I type this. I am inordinately fond of books. I have to sigh sometimes because I know I will not be able to read all the books I want to read right here in this room. I won't last long enough. And that's the books in this room, this study. It doesn't count all the books I'm going to acquire that are not yet in this room.

Which makes essays like this one stick with me. Not that what he says is surprising. I've been talking about the basic illiteracy of this society for a long time. The writer, one Jon Talton, an economic writer for the Seattle Times, writes a piece called "Men Don't Read."

I have a unique problem among men, it seems, without enough time to read. In fact, I have a problem that most men would not even recognize. It's truly sad . . . and what's worse, the problem with all those other guys that never read books . . . well, that ain't gonna get any better at all.

Here's a flavor of the article. Read the whole thing. It's pretty good.
My parents' generation was perhaps the high-water mark of this broad literacy that the founding fathers knew was essential for self-governance. Now it's gone.
It died in our society's abandonment of the public schools, and the screwing around with curriculum in even good schools (and for this latter, liberals can shoulder some blame, too). . . . Today, teachers must "teach to the test" and normal boy behavior is something to be medicated early. Today many schools don't even have libraries.
It died in a specialization society, where the Renaissance woman is rare and the Renaissance man below the age of forty is nearly non-existent (as is the public intellectual). Now even the brightest are channeled into silos of the mind early. The lucky ones are software engineers or neurosurgeons. Others are financial hucksters or diesel mechanics. They know a great deal about their very narrow field, along with an enthusiasm here and there . . . But they lack the knowledge of even a middle-brow polymath in the mid-20th century. At its worst, this "culture" merely places people into their Matrix pods as workers and "consumers."
It died with our electronic distractions. This baffles me: I spend my work day sitting before a computer screen; I need the tactile pleasure of a book when off-duty. I don't need my public library to have digital dazzle. But the damage was already well advanced, where thirty-year-old men were "reading" "graphic novels" (i.e. comic books) and living with their parents. Probably the first nail in the coffin was television, of which the average American watches 34 hours a week. And it died with the Southern-ization of our culture, where being "redneck" and "country" are high aspirations. [I would certainly mention the pernicious influence of the mindless hip-hop nation, which is far more pervasive than "Southern-ization," which I don't think really exists to any great extent anyway.]
To be sure, some people are never going to be readers. We used to feel sorry for them. Now it's the norm. With the extreme right, it's a point of pride. Don't need no book-learnin' when Rush and Sean and Bill will tell you the truth. . . . 
How a nation with a majority of simpletons faces the most complex dangers in history will be tragedy and farce. I just wish we didn't have to live through it, too.
 It already is tragedy and farce . . . it's just going to get worse. It will end in catastrophe.
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