Friday, April 4, 2008

is reading going the way of the dinosaurs?

A few weeks ago, my History of Books and Printing class put forth the idea of reading as a topic. We read tons of articles from contemporary sources, ranging from the New Yorker to Roald Dahl's Matilda. It is also telling that we looked at covers from the New Yorker as well. The cover below is the Thanksgiving 2006 New Yorker cover and to the right, the Summer 2007 fiction cover. I thought I would share my response. Enjoy!

Having read Roald Dahl's Matilda long ago and finding a kindred spirit in an under appreciated bookworm, I decided to examine the excerpts from Matilda with the two New Yorker covers and Bob Thompson’s “A Troubling Case of Readers’ Block.” In all the examples, the idea of reading is interpreted as a gauge for intellectual powers and ultimately a kind of power in how you approach the world and those around you. Matilda is the story of a girl who reads insatiably but is considered “weird” by her family of couch potatoes. The New Yorker summer 2007 cover (image at presents the lone girl reading Salinger and disdaining to ask like a mindless tourist. The Thanksgiving cover (image at juxtaposes Matilda’s dream family with her reality and Thompson is lamenting the loss of a culture that can be competitive and economically successful, a direct contradiction to the world as the Wormwoods see it. While it is clear what side Dahl comes down on in this tension between the readers and the non-readers, the Wormwoods are distressingly becoming the norm according to the current literature and studies.

When Matilda asks her father for a book to read, his answer is telling: “What’s wrong with the telly, for heaven’s sake? We’ve got a lovely telly with a twelve-inch screen and now you come asking for a book!” (12). Clearly, Mr. Wormwood’s values do not mix well with his curious and brilliant daughter’s. However, it has become a cultural norm to sit your child in front of a television set from birth under the guise it will make them smarter. The Wormwoods’ had no best interests at heart but today’s parents supposedly do according to studies. Have we come to devalue the written word so much? Thompson makes that apparent – we have created a general cultural norm of visual overloads and information chaos that they are pulled away from “traditional” reading. This in turn leads to them reading less well and also doing less well once out in the real world, especially professionally. “In an increasingly competitive world, the consequences of doing it [reading] badly include ‘economic decline’” (qtd. in Thompson). One of the most striking moments in Matilda is when Miss Honey comes to discuss Matilda with her parents. Her parents clearly devalue their daughter’s brains and her chances at succeeding in life. Mrs. Wormwood smugly points out to Miss Honey, “You chose books. I chose looks” (98). It is this mentality Thompson and another article by Susan Jacoby ("The Dumbing of America" laments as prevalent in today’s society. Not only are we ignorant, we are arrogant and happy in ignorance.

The New Yorker covers to fit well into the discussion Matilda brings forth on the value of reading. The summer 2007 cover features a small teenage girl reading what is clearly a cheap Salinger paperback to herself on a tour bus as the rest of the onlookers crowd to take photos of Radio City Music Hall. One would see Matilda doing the same thing. As her crazy consumer-driven family shoots photo after photo of the Big Apple, she immerses herself into the New York of Holden Caulfield. The cover illustrates well the tension between the ideas of the visual versus the text. Why should she read about New York when she is there? What can she get out of one author’s interpretation of the city that she herself cannot find by paying attention on her tour? The implication is that there is something in the text that reality can never give her and that she is the wiser for it seems to be the message of picture. The Thanksgiving 2006 cover creates a juxtaposition of two families. Leaving aside the obvious class issues for now, you fit the Wormwoods into the bottom and the family Matilda would long for at the top. They are quietly conversing; seeming to enjoy each other’s company while the child has been excused to read (what looks like comic strips but still valid cultural items). The family below is silent; riveted to what you know is a blaring television they couldn’t hear each other over. The requisite teenage daughter sits off to the side, deep in a cell phone conversation. The cover clearly is asking ‘which Thanksgiving would you rather be at?’

, Thompson and the New Yorker covers all are lamenting the loss of reading as a cultural value, of discussion and time spent outside of technology’s grasp. Clearly, this is something to be marveled at rather than considered the norm. Thompson mentions at one point in his article reading as a minority activity. The idea sends a chill down my spine. Have we reached a social moment where that is true? I know it is not true for me but am I the exception and not the norm? However, my examination of Matilda and the New Yorker covers shows there is an awareness of the failing value of reading and I think, a realization that we need to admit it and deal with it.

1 comment:

Mitch said...

It's an interesting question, and I think they're on to something. As kind of a kindred spirit bookworm, I have to admit that I don't get to read as often as I once did. I'm lucky, though, in that I can get the same enjoyment out of listening to books on CD while I'm in the car, whether it's on a long trip or just trolling around town.

Still, I believe it's not so much that reading has become anathema as much as the presentation of certain books isn't quite as strong. Just looking at the response the final Harry Potter book got on its release, as well as realizing the the author became a billionaire because of the books and not because of the movies, proves that with the proper marketing one can enthuse a targeted group of people, even those who may not read anything else.

There's also Oprah's book club, where every single book she recommends suddenly shoots to number one because everyone has to have it, read it, and discuss it. So, in essence, I think there's still hope for readers, but marketing is going to drive people to it.