Friday, November 19, 2004

Why Georgie Won't Read

Kevin and I attended a presentation on campus yesterday for the NEA's Reading at Risk report. This report, which was released over the summer, made a flapdoodle over the dramatic claim that literary reading has declined by 10% in the last decade overall, and 28% among young readers.

Frankly, my first impression, back in July, when I first heard about this, was to dismiss it outright. We're bombarded by these idiotic Government Studies all the time (hello, Mr. Starr Report, how are you today?) and they typically turn out to be porno fantasies wrapped in Beaurou speak and all tied up in a frantic little bows. After attending the panel discussion, I've amended this attitude somewhat. I still think the research is flawed, but they make a fair point just the same. This messy contradiction of views is probably why you haven't heard much about the Report, as it's not exactly something that can easily be digested into cute little soundbites for the mouthbreathers watching Fox News. Which, is part of the problem.

The major flaw in this study is that the term Literary Reading is not very well defined, and this is done on purpose. They don't want to mess around in the age old argument over what "is" Literature and so leave it open for interpretation. They do give the usual examples: Novels, short stories, poems, plays, magazines, etc. and it's in this etc. that we run into problems. For some reason, they define attending plays and opera as reading, but leave out comic books and Graphic Novels. The rep from the NEA gave the standard biased disclaimer, that if you think a Graphic Novel is a literary work, you'll take this into consideration when answering the question. And sure, Operas are often in French, Italian or German and involve a lot of reading of subtitles but so do foreign movies. One of the panelists brought this point up and suggested that we should include movie watching as reading if we're going to include plays (because honestly, how many people read Angels in America when you could have watched it on HBO?). While we were all rolling that little gem around in our heads, he went on to suggest that we should include New Media, like Blogs, which I agreed with, and video games, which I thought was the dumbest thing I'd heard in three Tuesdays.

So am I a snob? Reading Blogs is literary but engaging in vast, interactive online role playing is not? Yeah. I am a snob. Because playing role playing games and watching TV isn't fucking reading! It may be creative. It may be entertaining. But playing Grand Theft Auto, San Andreas does not rank on the same level as watching Kenneth Branagh's production of Hamlet or reading The Handmaid's Tale. Hell, it doesn't even rank as high as reading some drek by Stephen King and watching Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet!

So yes, people are reading less, watching TV and playing video games more and we're the worse for it. Because, as the poet on the panel meekly stated, an ill informed citizenry makes for something less than Democracy. But it's not like the NEA really has any suggestions on how to fix this problem. Not that I or anyone should expect them to. They're a government agency. They just wring their hands and cluck their tongues and hope that they won't have their budget cut by President Kill Again just so we can afford to build one more bomb to drop on Iran.

Short of a revolutionary idea like putting the money we spend on making war into education instead, there won't be a reversal of this trend in reading-- critical, entertaining or otherwise, any time soon. And I wouldn't hold my breath expecting the GOP to do anything about it either. They may not have invented the idea of staying in power by keeping people dumb, afraid and uninformed but they sure have exploited it in the most savvy manner.

Update: John Halbo over at Crooked Timber has a great post that starts where I leave off and goes in a far more positive direction, challenging your word power and knowledge of comic books. Well worth the read.

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