Monday, February 18, 2008

Bucking the Trend

The Paradox of the Book:
Not Reading an Iota in America
by Randy Salzman

We've Become Comfortably Dumb
by Susan Jacoby

Outlook Section
Washington Post
February 17, 2008

If you saw the most recent Outlook section of the Washington Post you might be feeling a little distress. There were two articles about how illiterate our nation is becoming. The statistics are amazing - according to Susan Jacoby's article, between 1982 and 2002 the percentage of college graduates who read novels or poems just for the pleasure of it dropped from 82 percent to 67 percent. Even more appalling, the results of the same 2002 survey showed that more than 40 percent of adults under 44 did not read one single book - either fiction or nonfiction - during the course of a year. Jacoby discusses how many young Americans are arrogant in our ignorance - we no longer think it is important to know the geographic location or history of other countries - even when significant things are happening in those countries that affect our country's relationship with them.

Jacoby grimly describes a looming intellectual wasteland here in the United States, but is was Salzman's article that really captured my attention. He describes spending a day waiting to testify in juvenile court. Knowing that he might have to wait awhile, he took along the book he was reading at the time, Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. To his surprise, of the approximately 50 adults waiting in the courtroom and outside waiting room, no one else had brought a book, magazine, or newspaper. Most were just staring into space. Little children were bored, but no parents had brought anything for them to read or picture books for them to look at. Salzman began to wonder about the connections between reading (or the lack thereof) and the likelihood of ending up in trouble as a juvenile.

It is ironic that he was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, a must-read if you have not already. It is about women getting together in secret in Iran, risking beating and jail, to read literary stars such as Vladmir Nabokov whom we usually shun because they are "too much work." The power of reading is so real to these women that they will literally risk their lives to do it. Salzman writes: "Call it the paradox of the book. Where we can read, where we should read, where reading might address the exact problem being battled and where there is little else to do but read, we don't. But 'over there,' where the simple pleasure of understanding life through literature is denied, people are willing to suffer for the right to open Austen, Kafka, Nabokov, Tolstoy, and Twain."

Salzman is one who believes that effort can make a difference - his experience at the juvenile court led him to solicit donated books to leave for people to read at the courthouse. He quotes a National Endowment for the Arts study published in November 2007 that says "The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have been reluctant to declare as fact-books change lives for the better." Salzman figures that if one bored, restless kid picks up a book and finds his or her mind opened to a new world, to new possibilities, then his effort will be worthwhile.

People who do not read are missing out on so much. I am reasonably well-read, but painfully aware that there will never be time to read everything I want to. There are some from the canon of classic literature that I have missed or avoided altogether. This seems like a good time to announce my project for 2008. I have decided to read Tolstoy's War and Peace. Time and again, people list it as a favorite, but I have avoided it because it seems like such a slog. However, Michael Dirda's review of the new translation (a few months ago) inspired me to give it a try. E. got me a copy of the new translation for my birthday last week, and it is on the shelf beckoning to me.

I will probably not read it for a few more months. I'm kind of in training for the marathon right now, psyching myself up and interspersing big fat tomes in my reading repertoire. This is my way of bucking the trend of illiteracy that we seem to be blithely lurching into as a nation. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Has anyone else out there tackled Tolstoy? I assume if you have found your way to this blog, you have some interest in reading, so I would love to hear other people's impresssions of the book. I really am getting excited about reading it.

Reverent Reader


At 2/19/08, 7:19 AM , Blogger TET said...

Hey Leslie -
Happy (very belated) Birthday!! Sorry about that.
I think you do yourself a disservice to say that you're only "reasonably" well read . . . I would put you at the top of the list of well read folks that that I know (that includes the English teachers at Riverdale!)
I'm psyched to hear that you're training for a marathon too (though of a different sort). I look forward to your blog posts about War and Peace!

I just started "The sharper your knife, the less you cry" and I'm really enjoying it! I was worried it was going to be a little too girly for my tastes, but I'm getting into it!

At 2/19/08, 10:16 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Yo, TET! Thanks for the b-day wishes. It was a good one. I am excited about "War and Peace" - thinking of starting it in early fall, but may have to move it up. We'll see - I have quite the stack even without it, so will probably try to whittle it down a bit before settling in with Leo for the long haul. Love to you and S.!

At 2/20/08, 9:06 PM , Blogger Ellen said...

Hi Leslie,
Wow, I miss the Washington Post! I know you can read it online, but it's not the same. Just wanted to let you know that we've tried to do our part in instilling a love of reading in our children and we have succeeded! I think Laura is reading (or has read) War and Peace and know she's read other Russian writers (I think she's going to take Russian next semester). I'll forward a link to your blog to her.

At 2/20/08, 9:38 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey Ellen - What a treat to hear from you! Remembering L and K as I do, it does not surprise me at all that they are into reading. Please give them and R. my best and give a call when you next visit the Nation's Capital! I know what you mean about the Washington Post. I am totally addicted to the Sunday Book World section.

At 2/20/08, 10:27 PM , Blogger laura behm said...

Hey Leslie -

I actually have not read War and Peace, but I'm thinking about starting it within the week. In terms of other Tolstoy, I read "Anna Karenina" and I absolutely love it - something about the way Tolstoy writes draws you into the characters entirely. And if you really want to "train" for Tolstoy, I would recommend picking up "The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories". It's a collection of his short stories (not that I would really consider them "short", they take a good bit of time to read) and it's a really good way to get used to how he writes and to get to know some of the themes that he likes to discuss.


At 2/21/08, 8:09 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey Laura -

That is a great suggestion - I may order those "short stories" from Amazon today! I've definitely been thinking about "Anna Karenina" as well. I hope all is well with you, and that you are having a great semester!


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