Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Literacy, Culture and Civilization

The Columbia Journalism Review features an article on the decline of book reviews in daily newspapers. Traditionalists cringe in horror and worry that this may be the end of the world, but the article also features the other point of view...that we're in a new renaissance, and it is taking time for us to adapt:

“There is intelligent book talk going on at so many levels. It includes much more than reviewers and bloggers. Once technology is discovered, you can’t stop it. We’re going to have e-books. We’re going to have print-on-demand business. We’re going to have a lot more discourse on the Web, and it will become more sophisticated as literary gatekeepers arrive to keep order. The key word is adaptation, which will happen whether we like it or not.”

The article goes on to discuss the longer trend of the declining quality of serious book reviews. After a turgid history of the past few decades in the newspaper industry, the article livens up again when discussing readers themselves:

Serious reading, of course, was always a minority taste. We’ve known that ever since Dr. Johnson. “People in general do not willingly read,” he said, “if they can have anything else to amuse them.” Today, the entertainment-industrial complex offers a staggering number of compelling alternatives. A substantial number of Americans—scores of millions—are functionally and seemingly happily illiterate. Many more can read but choose not to. Of those who do, most read for the entirely understandable pleasures of escaping the drudgeries of daily life or for moral, spiritual, financial, or physical self-improvement, as the history of American best-sellers suggests. The fables of Horatio Alger, the platitudes of Dale Carnegie, the nostrums of Marianne Williamson, the inspirations of such secular saints as Lee Iaccoca—all are the golden jelly on which the queen bees of American publishing have traditionally battened.


The terrible irony is that at the dawn of an era of almost magical technology with a potential of deepening the implicit democratic promise of mass literacy, we also totter on the edge of an abyss of profound cultural neglect. One is reminded of Philip Roth’s old aphorism about Communism and the West: “In the East, nothing is permitted and everything matters; in the West, everything is permitted and nothing matters.” In today’s McWorld, the forces seeking to enroll the populace in the junk cults of celebrity, sensationalism, and gossip are increasingly powerful and wield tremendous economic clout. The cultural conversation devolves and is held hostage to these trends. The corporate wars over who will control the technology of newsgathering and electronic communication and data and distribution are increasingly fierce. Taken together, these factors threaten to leave us ignorant of tradition, contemptuous of the habits of quality and excellence, unable to distinguish among the good, the bad, and the ugly.


It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring.

Readers know that. They know in their bones something newspapers forget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs. I shall never forget overhearing some years ago, on the morning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a woman asking a UCLA police officer if he expected trouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, “Ma’am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs.” There was more wisdom in that cop’s remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal justice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies since time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books.

OK -- pretty extensive quotes. But worth the price. Kryptonite to gangs! I wish I could come up with quips like that.....maybe if I read more. (Hat tip to Evangelical Outpost for this article).

Thus, again the importance of tales Like Farenheit 451 and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Literacy is one of the great forces for civilization. Let's take care to encourage it.