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Apr 10, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Literate Civilization

Another typical screed bemoaning the loss of literary refinement in human civilization.

The odd thing about this decline in general literacy is that people are probably reading more than ever. Beyond the obvious ramifications of a much more highly educated populace, the rise of the Internet has upped the amount of time a person spends reading every day. But they’re not reading Sophocles, to be sure: it’s likely that blog posts and Wikipedia, despite the fact that they put more text before more eyes, have actually hurt our cultural sensibilities. Readers accustomed to short Perez Hilton paragraphs have difficulty turning to, say, the long-winded eloquence of Faulkner, and so the good stuff gets pushed aside.

It’s not even that books have been abandoned altogether. In fact, there have been some astonishing literary phenomena in recent years that probably represent the largest shared experiences of reading in history. The obvious example is the Harry Potter series, which has sold over 400 million copies in 67 languages. More recently, the Twilight books have gotten a boost from the related movie and are now seen in every teenage girl’s hands. And the seemingly unending hubbub over faux-memoirs and the accountability of authors would seem to suggest that people still care deeply about literature.

But the literature under consideration is of a deeply impoverished sort. Harry Potter and Twilight are good for a quick thrill and an occasional, broad-stroked lesson, but there’s no comparison to true art. At the risk of sounding too high-brow (and my hesitation indicates the extent to which cultural elitism has been discredited), the majority of what people read today is schlock. There’s something to be said for the pleasure of reading Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, I suppose, but their prevalence pushes aside the great authors.

This always amuses me. More people are reading than ever. How can we make this look bad? Oh, yeah, maybe they're reading but it's all puppy-poop! So there!

So let me get this straight.

Year 1309
Number of Literate People Reading Enobling Philosophical and Religious Stuff: 50
Number of Literate People: 50
Number of People communicating prmirily through the written word: 1 (primarily a nun walled into some little room with quill and parchment)

Year 2009
Number of Literate People Reading Enobling Philosophical and Religious Stuff: 50
Number of Literate People Reading Trashy Genre Books Like Harry Potter: 400 million
Number of Literate People: Apparently more than 400 million
Number of People communicating prmirily through the written word: millions (primarily geeks walled inside little rooms with a computer)

Yeah, reading has really declined in the past 700 years. Cry me an ocean.

There's been no decline, in real numbers, of those who like to read the erudite and uplifting and obscure. Those of us who are interested in flogging our souls with ink and paper are outnumbered by those who like to watch Punch-and-Judy shows, but that's nothing new.

The main complaint here, it seems to me, is that some dofus went and taught the tasteless masses how to read.

I think the entire nature of our society is changing. Consider even the lamest, stupidest trolls on the internet, the kind who post profoundly stupid comments which defy the laws of both logic and grammar.

Twenty years ago, these kind of people would have not dreamed of sitting at a keyboard to read or write something.

A century ago, these people would not even have been literate.

A millennium ago, the majority of the human population vastly superior in intelligence to internet trolls would not even have been literate.

Just consider. Even the idiots in our society now have to be better versed in the written language, just to express their stupidity, than the geniuses of ages past.


Unknown said...

You're my hero.

This post is made of awesome.

writtenwyrdd said...

That's hilariously snobbish on the part of the Cornell Sun!

Don't you hate having to justify an addiction to genre fiction? It's still snobbishly poo-pooed by many. You say you write, they ask what, you say SF/genre-of-your-choice and they say, after cricket-chirping pause, "Oh. That's...nice." And it's all they can do to either not curl their lip or look at you hopefully like the nice men with butterfly nets should be arriving soon.

The thing about fiction--of any flavor--is that it speaks of the human condition. It ALWAYS speaks of the human condition, whether the genre be romance, SF, fantasy, horror, mystery, or whatever.

Sure, some books and tales contain more depth. But how many prize-winning books have you been able to actually finish? How many "classic" books? If they are boring, maybe it's because they aren't that special, they're just OLD?

Thanks for the post!

Sara Raasch said... That's all I can say. Haha

PurpleClover said...

So the article linked said, "maybe we should censor the classics."

I think we did that with the bible didn't we? It was called the Dark Ages.

I'd rather society reads slush than not read at all. At least it builds vocabularies and provides people the escape they need from life's hard lessons.

I read the likes of Emily & Charlotte Bronte, I love Shakespeare and Sophoclese. But I also love Perez Hilton and TMZ. I guess I should admit defeat now. sigh.


PurpleClover said...

sorry about the extra "e" in sophocles

Danyelle L. said...


This is an awesome post. I may frame it. I mean, seriously, this is the best example of literary evolution I have ever come across. :D

Jennifer said...

You make some great points. At least people are reading.

J.L. Johnson said...

I read the Cornell article, and personally, I think this guy is an idiot. I sat here, shaking my head head as I read the final paragraph;

And so we find ourselves in a cultural desert. People read, but they don’t read what’s valuable; or they read what’s valuable, but they just skim the surface.

Who is this person to judge what's valuable and what isn't. Just because someone isn't college or university educated, doesn't mean that their preference in books is worthless.

book reviews have been sequestered to the Web, which, quite clearly, is not the ideal place for patient, reasoned criticism.

Well, apparently it was good enough for him.

Tara Maya said...

PurpleClover, it's like that reading this blog post has actually hurt your cultural sensibilities, turing to mush the part of your brain able to spell Sophecles.

Janet said...

Brava, Tara, brava.

Now, if we could just gather the genre readers and stage a coup d'etat, the literary world would resemble the real world :)

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

This made me smile.

My dad always compared reading to running. Reading Harry Potter was like jogging. It keeps you in shape. Reading Jane Austen was like running a 5k. It takes more stamina, but you can do it if you try. Reading Faulkner was like running a marathon. That takes skill, practices, effort, and determination.

Sure, I wouldn't advise walking into a room full of people talking about running marathons and saying "oh,well, I jog on Sundays." But you shouldn't feel bad about jogging -- it's good for you. Besides, if all you run are marathons, eventually, you won't be able to walk. You'll burn out.

Tara Maya said...

Great comparison.

Sherrie Petersen said...

So we're all literate idiots? We learned to read just so a stuffed shirt can tell us we're too stupid to read the right things? Whatever. Hope they're happy in that dark corner...

XiXi said...

Your post expresses my opinion exactly. And I would even go as far to say that more people read classics today than back then, simply because there ARE more literate people.

Go slush-reading Harry Potter fans! Haha.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I can see the points in that article, but seriously, I don't think they were presented well or have much merit.

I love classics. I love that we can all be connected online. I love that we can close that gap just a little bit more. And look at all the teenage girls who are interested in reading now! Who knows that without Twilight if some of them would have ever been interested before. Some of them might even turn into writers! GASP!

Annie Louden said...

Very nice post. And that Onion article was great.

I tend to like more literary-ish stuff, but I will read anything as long as it's well-written. And now I have met so many writers who write so many genres, and I know it's all hard work.

I remember in high school kids bragging that they hadn't read a book in years. At least more people are reading today.

But I do think that my brain has been rewired by the Internet. My attention span is hardly there anymore. I used to be able to read for HOURS, in one spot, and not even realize it. Now I'm looking up every 10 minutes This happens no matter what I'm reading.

Ban said...

ditto dominique ... great comparison !

Charlie Rice said...

The purists are coming! Stash the Star Trek novellas under the loose floorboards in the attic!

You know what? I love Tom Clancy and Dan Brown. I love to escape and have fun. I love Dan Brown for hooking my teenage son on reading with The DaVinci Code. Come to think about it, there are a million people that read because of that book. Bless Dan Brown for that.(Angels and Demons is the only book I haven't read and it's intentional because I want to see the movie and be somewhat surprised) Yeah, I like to "escape at the movies" like the marketing tells me I should.

It reminds of Jazz purists that think every other form of music is inferior. That's okay. I'm opening a bottle of five dollar wine, listening to Jon Anderson and sitting down (on a really old department store chair)to read Saucer by Stephen Coonts.

AmyB said...

LOL, very true.

Anonymous said...

Technically speaking, very few of us actually read the classics at all. They were often written in Greek, Latin, or some other emerging version of the temporally contemporary language. What we do read is our current interpretations of those works. The popular medium (and here I am talking about blogs, internet communications, etc - not the attempts at serious fiction that I often see discussed on this blog) exhibit a new way of communicating, in content, form, and style. To say that such communications are in any sense a decline in literacy is to fail to understand how language and communications evolve. Good topic, Tara Maya! Once more you have introduced something pithy in a finely blended pudding.

Carrie Harris said...

Gosh, yes. Classics are great, literary books have their place, but that doesn't mean you have to throw genre fiction into the trash.


PurpleClover said...

Tara -

It probably has something to do with Zulu. :)

I'm sure my brain is looking quite appetizing to the aliens at this point.

Tara Maya said...

LOL. Love that ad.