I have been gone for a bit now, recently returned from a delightful vacation in Madrid, which marked my first trip to Spain. If there’s anything that cramming 700 years of art history into a few days can teach a person, it’s that human culture doesn’t change easily — the Prado is crammed with great works by great masters that are full of violence (generally religious, natch) or naked ladies (who never have pubes, natch). Also, those wealthy patrons who had artists paint them into the background at, say, the Crucifixion are no different than people Photoshopping themselves into exotic locales and putting that shit on Facebook.
But, moving on.
First up, I must take umbrage with this story over at n+1. Entitled “Goodbye to the Graphosphere,” it is part of a new subgenre within the flourishing tradition of “Kids today!”, ripe with premature meditations about how nobody likes reading anymore. Now, mind you, traditional publishing is in trouble — new technologies have created new mechanisms for information distribution, many more convenient than the ol’ paper-and-ink model. But, before one begins to mourn the death of written storytelling altogether, consider this 2009 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, tracking literary readership amongst the American population — and showing that, between 2002 and 2008, it actually rose for the first time since the study began in 1982. Such data goes unmentioned in the n+1 story, because it runs contrary to the popular elite narrative that our culture is in a permanent, irreversible decline. One need only look to the massive explosion in self-publishing prompted by inexpensive and easy-to-use print-on-demand technology to see that the form of the novel still matters to people — what matters less are the imprints which have traditionally wielded extraordinary power over what kind of textual media can be mass-consumed. Google doesn’t maintain a slush pile; they let anyone take a peek. Scribd doesn’t send out rejection letters. This leads, of course, to work of highly variable quality, although much of it is still probably superior to the likes of Dan Brown.
Books, and reading, are tremendously important. We should always defend our literary lives, and as the NEA report points out, many of the gains in readership can be attributed to concerted efforts by librarians, educators, parents, booksellers, publishers, writers, and anyone who cares to improve America’s literary lot. But this merely proves my point — there are millions of people out there who care passionately about books and reading, about novels and stories, and none of them are about to let literacy go gently into that good night.