On Reading: Reading the 21st Century

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

Reading the 21st Century

Reading the 21st Century

Reading the 21st Century: Books of the decade, 2000-2009 
by Stan Persky
published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

I should have posted this blog last night. Instead, my son and I had an all out battle on SingStar. We belted out power ballads and I wiped the floor with him thanks to Bonnie Tyler and Queen. In some cases we sang songs familiar to both of us and in other instances we sang songs new to us. What blew me away though was my son singing Naughty by Nature’s O.P.P. The rapping is phenomenally fast in that song. My son has only heard it a couple of times yet he was able to keep up with the text flying across the screen – I could not. Earlier in the day he spent a few hours reading his fifth novel for the summer holidays – Suzanne Collins’s Catching Fire (“it isn’t as good as the first one, mum”). I also know that amongst his feeds and apps he subscribes to daily Sports news (as a teenaged sports nut is wont to do) and SBS News (“you have to have a balanced world view, mum”). He had also watched five episodes of Community with the captions turned on. I consider my son to be an average reader. He’s pretty good but he doesn’t come close to the kids that I see coming through libraries. The family joke is that my children are rebelling against me by not being avid readers. But here’s the secret – I do consider my kids avid because they are constantly engaged with text and in ways that I had not considered reading prior to 2000. At the sunset of the 20th century, the world wide web had yet to really impact reading but 15 years into the 21st Century, reading perspectives have shifted. So it was with deep disappointment that I read Stan Persky’s Reading the 21st Century expecting a contemporary approach but instead I found it full of apocalyptic doom and gloom about the end of knowledge, the end of culture and the dumbed down, ignorant youth of today that are victims to marketing and advertising and too stupid to know better.

I wasn’t going to add this book in my list of On Reading. It is the only title I am covering that is not published in 2014 and it is the only book I disagreed with. But I have included it as I read 6 books on reading back-to-back and my thoughts overlap and interlink with each of the books. I could not unread it.

My initial reaction to this book was far from positive. I posted a brief comment on Goodreads that said this: “I was disappointed with this book. A whole decade and the author could not bring himself to value even one female author (which he acknowledges in the book) yet he is happy to elevate 2 of his friends as authors of the decade. This is the point that I dismissed the book as a valuable critique of the decade’s literary production and I just consider it as a well-written personal list of fave books that could be turned into a Buzzfeed post. Suffice to say, after the first 2 chapters, I skim read to the end.”

I felt that I could not do a disservice to this book (or to my current series of blog posts) to just repost about my disgruntled skim read so I reborrowed the book (the only one that I had returned to the library of the 6 I read) and reread it, much closer this time. I find that though I am unconvinced by the book as a whole, I do need to retract part of my statement and then extrapolate on some other points.

First, my retraction. In actual fact, Stan Persky does list some women as influential in the first decade of the 21st century. Some of these authors are Naomi Klein, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Susan Jacoby but these are authors discussed in chapters where an event, issue or concept, for example, the chapter Ignorance in the desert, where reading in decline is the focus, as compared to his discussion of specific books and authors such as his chapters titled with Orhan Pamuk or Richard Dawkins’ names. This is why, upon glancing at the contents page and the index and skimming the surface of the book – those typical pre-browsing activities one makes so as to decide upon whether a book is worthy of being read deeper – that I found myself considering the book to have only male authors. Note also, that I found this book by browsing my university library shelves and did not find it due to any review literature and nor did my copy have its jacket cover (another odd but typical university library practice) where the blurb could inform me any differently as to the contents within the book. Persky himself addresses his leaning towards male authors and ruminates “I’m not sure how big a problem this is, but if it is one, it’s complicated by a variety of factors”. For me, it was definitely a problem and it did make me dismiss his book sooner than I should have. Perhaps a little less foreshadowing in the introduction (maybe reflecting in the conclusion instead) would have been a more positive experience for me but I do appreciate that at least Persky showed awareness of this issue and it is always difficult to decide where to position these discussions in a book. Had Persky written this book in 2014, I feel he would have been much more mindful of including women due to the high profile advocacy of Vida Lit which has been conducting its male/female ration count since 2009. However, this is not my main dispute with this book.

Persky goes into a library and his dismay at the databases replacing books . He talks about the stacks that remain unused which he labels “The Dead Library”. He discusses Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation and Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion and “the vacuity, shallowness, and dopey nature of the pop culture foisted on young people today” (though it isn’t all those dumb kids fault – it’s those darned marketing companies at this point I want to point out that all those smart books get marketed too) and he concludes his book with a discussion that society is in a “red alert” stage due to the dumbing down and the decline of reading. My main question here is: what decline of reading? I have been working in libraries since 1989. I have never, NEVER experienced a more excited and engaged readership as in our current era. Over many years (nay – decades!), I have worked on teams for assessment of materials for deletion, due to space restrictions, from library collections (public libraries are not repositories – if an item doesn’t get borrowed, unless it is of local importance, it needs to go). Adult collections always meet projected targets. Most materials are borrowed but it is easy to identify material for withdrawal due to books that don’t get borrowed for 2 years, and in one particular library I was assessing award winning books that had sat untouched on the open shelves for over 12 years – I see this not as a dumbed down reading populace but as a book that had not retained an interested audience . However, the kids’ collections have phenomenal loans. Some books have over 200 loans in the space of 4 years – we are talking this many loans per copy . The majority of copies have over 100 loans each. Kids are connected and smart and highly aware of the condescending attitudes of adults who treat them as less intelligent. Even as kids get older and they move away from reading 10 books a week and they enter their high school years and start reading across mediums, this does not make them unintelligent. I was disappointed that Persky, who makes an unapologetic aside about his Mad Magazine reading (having been brought up with Mad myself, this should have made him a winner in my eyes), I am baffled at how he doesn’t see that all the meme reading and snark compilations that youth make such as Thug Life and Randy Orton RKO as being any different to seeking out a Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side of or Don Martin’s cartoons . Is a Mort Drucker parody any different to Honest Trailers? They are just as incisive and critical of culture as Mad was with the only difference being that anyone can post their satire. It is no longer controlled by “elite” gatekeepers/editors – and therein lies the problem. Persky cites many other writers that support his reading doomsday prediction – and I would concede that reading that Persky values, you know – the literary publisher (who has a profit imperative as their bottom line just as much as any other commercial producer of pop cultural entertainments) and literary critic and gatekeeper endorsed reading is in decline because readers value different perspectives to theirs. I would suggest David Trend’s The End of Reading and Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think and the Pew Internet’s report on youth reading as a salve to Persky’s alarm.

Were there any positives for me to find in this book? I say yes. Persky goes down rabbit holes for the books that he deems worthy. He explores books and all of their referrents and not only the book as a stand alone object. He was definitely thoughtful and thorough in his discussion of issues and events important to him (which are also important to many readers). That he is thorough is undeniable. But I stand by my Buzzfeed statement. Where Wendy Lesser firmly states that her book is about her tastes, Persky positions his book as a bettering tool. He implies that by reading these books and taking his advice you too will be smarter and of a higher intellect.

My seeking out writers on reading is purposeful. I like validation of my own reading (don’t we all). I also like to see where others position themselves on the spectrum of mixed platforms to exclusively codex. As I demonstrated at the beginning of my post, I have a broad perception of the reading act. I endorse reading of all types. Alongside my embracing of books, I consider follow the bouncing ball singing along to The Beatles cartoons to be reading. I consider playing Cards Against Humanity reading. I consider having the closed captions on your favourite TV show turned on so that you can memorise every single line to be reading. And I consider them reading not in a pity party patronising sense of “Oh well…at least they are reading” sentiment *add a head tilt and condescending pat on the head* but because it is fully engaged, joyful reading. Bookclubs are all well and good as communal reading goes but Karaoke clubs knock shared reading experiences out of the ballpark. I am also aware that should Stan Persky read this post, I would immediately be considered part of the uncultured, unaware, unintelligent, dumbed down members of society that are guilty of the cultural demise that is upon us. But then again, he read Mad Magazine. I hope I am wrong.

The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by browsing the library shelves.

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