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Michael Silverblatt on books Michael Silverblatt on books
Issue 001

Michael Silverblatt on books

November 28, 2006
How did it start? First it was a friend saying, "I don't read as much as I used to."This was someone who read Gravity's Rainbow as soon as it came out, but all these years later still hasn't opened Mason & Dixon. Maybe he owns David Foster Wallace's essays or subscribes to McSweeney's, but he simply doesn't have time to read everything now. Of course, he never read everything anyway. He just knew about everything new and smart and hot.A few years later he says, "I just don't have time to read anymore."Well, hell, who doesn't know him? The first horrible job, the first baby, the house that needs renovating, the hours spent googling on the computer. No time.Then later still: "I don't read."This in the same proud voice of someone who, when asked for a match, says a little too quickly, "I don't smoke." Or, holding a hand over the wineglass, says to the waiter, "I don't drink."Then the nadir. Last month I had a conversation that boiled down to:"What do you do?""I host a public radio show about books.""I hate reading."I felt like I'd been spat at or slapped. I fought the impulse to say, "Well, I hate you." But soon I met a whole brigade of reading haters. My niece hates reading, an art dealer I met hates reading, the publisher of a brand-new magazine hates reading. So, after crawling out of a puddle of tears, I began to wonder why people hate reading. Why do they say it so calmly? Why do they say it to me? Once they would have hid the truth and pretended to care.I think the answer I came up with is interesting, and I want to tell it to you, and I want you to listen and to stop laughing at me. Sit down.I think you have never been taught to read.I know I shouldn't say this to you (you're very nice) but I know it to be true, or true in so many cases that the exceptions don't matter.In 1962, poet-critic Randall Jarrell published his essay "The Schools of Yesteryear." In it, he examines the Appleton Readers, once the most popular school readers used in American public schools, and he found that in 1880, the fifth-grade reader contained works by Byron, Coleridge, Cervantes, Dickens, Emerson, Jefferson, Shakespeare , Shelley, Thoreau, Mark Twain and "simpler writers such as Scott, Burns, Longfellow, Cooper, Audubon, Poe, Benjamin Franklin and Washington Irving."Fourth-graders were reading Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and poems by Wordsworth. If you're thinking to yourself, "How could that be? I didn't encounter anything like this until college," well, that's exactly Jarrell's point.A decision was made about how to teach reading that, by the 1950's, ensured Americans would not know their own (or any other) culture. We're all consequences of that decision.Remember second grade? We opened our class readers and read something like:See the dog run!Go, dog. Go!Go, go, go.And in case you missed the point, this was accompanied by a bright picture of a dog . . . going. We were given more and more of this, readers and workbooks and special projects, and the sure thing is that these words were not written by a writer but by a committee, a committee of reading specialists whose assignment was to create a program to guarantee that everyone would be able to read by the fourth grade."Able to read" means, of course, able to recognize simple words, a skill of sorts but not to be confused with reading. We were taught to recognize words but not to enjoy reading, and we weren't given anything of value to read. So we learned not to read, but to respond to a reading technology.What did the technology leave out? Only everything. The crucial thing it omitted is the rich and valuable experience of incomprehension, the most important element of reading. The art (as opposed to the technology) of reading requires that you develop a beautiful tolerance for incomprehension. The greatest books are the books that you come to understand more deeply with time, with age, with rereading.I would bet you my entire library that after elementary school you never read the school reader again, except perhaps to laugh at it. Why would you reread "Go dog, go?"It has nothing to tell you about dogs, or running, or going (whatever that is). It teaches you effective word recognition, but reading isn't done with just the eyes, or the eyes and the lips, it's done with the mind. "Go dog, go!" doesn't engage the mind, not even a child's mind. All it does is give the child the experience of achievement, instant and complete understanding - in other words, the usual American virtue of immediate gratification.If the teacher read you a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream in third grade, and then you struggled to read it out loud with the rest of the class in fourth grade, and you read the complete play in seventh grade-you would have the incredible experience of discovering that the mind comes to terms with its own incomprehension. The clearing of the fog of incomprehension is the yardstick of growth, every kind of growth: emotional, intellectual, moral, aesthetic, human growth.By now it isn't just one generation of kids that wasn't taught to read, their parents weren't taught either."A new figure has conquered the social stage. This new species is the second-order illiterate," writes Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a brilliant German culture critic, in his essay "In Praise of Illiteracy.""It contributes to the second-order illiterate's sense of well-being that he has no idea that he is a second-order illiterate. He considers himself well-informed; he can decipher instructions on appliances and tools; he can decode pictograms and checks. . . . The ideal medium for the second-order illiterate is television."By now second-order illiteracy has become so common that we elect second-order illiterates to office. Our president is only the most obvious example. Other second-order illiterates seem to identify with and to be consoled by the second-order illiteracy of their leaders. They like direct statement (they learned from that school reader) and have low tolerance for complex argument-really for complexity of any kind.I don't have a solution, but I'll make a deal with you. If you will compromise and admit that you don't hate reading, I promise never to recommend a book that will waste your time. Maybe, gradually, I can persuade you to do good: to help change the way reading is taught in this country. Maybe we can alter our future.Some more information:
Gravity's Rainbow (1973)  By Thomas Pynchon; in its time, the paradigm for the difficult novel.
Mason & Dixon (1997)   Also by Pynchon.David Foster Wallace  American writer, author of the novel Infinite Jest (1996).McSweeney's   Edited by Dave Eggers; the best literary magazine in which to find new fiction.Randall Jarrell   Probably the most sensitive critic of poetry in his time.
"The Schools of Yesteryear" (1962) To be found in Jarrell's collection A Sad Heart at the Supermarket.
"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751) By Thomas Gray; the first appearance of the phrases  "kindred spirit" and "paths of glory."William Wordsworth  Father of Romantic poetry.
A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespearean comedy about young lovers lost in a forest.Hans Magnus Enzensberger  German author, poet, editor; has written eloquently about the phenomenon of modern terrorism. "In Praise of Illiteracy"  Delivered as an acceptance speech by Enzensberger when he won the Heinrich Boll Prize for contributions to German literature.-M.S.
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Michael Silverblatt on books