On the Current State of Reading in America

If we have reached a point in history where very few actually read poems or novels from beginning to end anymore, then we have arrived at a post literary epoch made ironic for its surplus of literary publications and concurrent dearth of literary conversation—the latter of which is essential for advancing our culture and preserving the most important principles of our fragile democracy.

According to the latest NEA poll taken in 2015, 43 percent of adult Americans read at least one work of literature in the previous year, which is the lowest percentage in any year since NEA surveys began tracking reading and arts participation in 1982, when the reading rate for literature was 57 percent. This precipitous decline in readership coincides with the addictive allure of social media. This drop in literary literacy to less than half of the population creates an untenable national forum for raising the level of discourse from the kind of popular talk-radio rants that fill the Clear Channel airways to open-minded conversations about ideas, novels, poems, essays, drama, and politics. The intellectual criterion for apprehending literature, namely what the philosopher Francis Bacon described as “weighing and considering”, holds true for democratic elections as well. The less a reader thinks about a piece of literature’s conceits and mimetic value, the less they exercise their cognitive acumen for “weighing and considering” in general, whether in relation to examining their own lives, political issues, or their relationships. The social psychologist Lawrence Kholberg established the importance of “moral development” over innate intelligence as the key cognitive factor in a person’s moral progress from punitive to principled thinking. What the highest level of cognitive development and literature have always held in common is the mutual practice of what William Blake called the most sublime act one can commit, namely, “to set another before you.” But how would one ever know this if he never considered the lobster, as David Foster Wallace puts it in his essay “Consider the Lobster”, or placed a schizophrenic young man before herself on the edge of a frigid lake on a cold December day, as George Saunders does his story “The Tenth of December” or heard her aunt’s cry in the dentist office as her own like six year old Elizabeth Bishop in her poem “In the Waiting Room” or held his dying friend in his arms and saw himself in him, as Gilgamesh does his friend Enkidu in Gilgamesh.

How much of a difference would a higher readership actually make on the national psyche? What if, for instance, more than fifty percent of Americans read literary fiction and poetry seriously? Would it actually make something “happen”, contrary to what W.H. Auden claimed in his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” namely, that “poetry” and presumably literary fiction also, “make nothing happen”?

In a conversation that took place in 2013 between Laure Adler and the eminent literary critic and philosopher, George Steiner, Steiner made the following observation about the tragic irony of the holocaust and other 20th century atrocities:

The death camps, Stalin’s camps, the great massacres, didn’t come from the Gobi desert; they came from the high civilizations of Russia and Europe, from the very center of our greatest artistic and philosophical pride; and the humanities put up no resistance.

Yeats’ lines from “The Second Coming”— the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity —come immediately to mind. So, what’s a writer and avid reader to do in order to pull the American public away from their cell phones and news that doesn’t stay news?

The results of the last U.S. election betrayed not only the weak readership of America’s citizenry but the failure of enough intelligent readers to prevent an ignoramus from being elected. Philip Roth, one of America’s most astute readers and best writers, put it this way:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.

We live in an age when it’s nearly impossible for writers and readers not to feel Cassandra-like. The burden of writing in today’s political Zeitgeist, as well as reading creatively, weighs heavily on American poets and novelists. But one can’t start by merely pointing out the tragic irony inherent in the disparity between the brilliance of American literature and all its arts and the illiterate “humanly impoverished” president, who commented to Megan Kelly in an interview soon after he became president: “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time…When was the last time I watched a baseball game? I’m watching you all the time.”

One discovers the pleasure of reading like Balboa beholding the Pacific for the first time. But one must be led to such a discovery, either by a mentor or through innate curiosity. How wonderful it would be, therefore, if the president of this so-called “most advanced nation in the world” encouraged both children and adults to read for the sake of “weighing and considering” ideas, characters, plots, conceits, history, and the diachronic legacy of the human mind? And not only read, but comment respectfully on the passing of such a literary giant as John Ashbery with a memorial tribute as simple as even this:

Adieu, John Ashbery. Adieu. Thank you for changing our language and lives and bringing us closer as Americans and citizens of the world to a higher realization of who we really are as sentient, conscious beings who forget how truly enlightened and thrilling we can be without someone like you.

How to proceed from this unprecedented point of intellectual regression where the “literature industry” has created a drowned river of contemporary poetry and fiction, where too many professors retreat as valetudinarians into their messy studies, where legions of zealots promulgate fear-driven, specious theologies, where right-wing republicans espouse plutocracy, misogyny and devil-take-hindmost policies as democracy and “love of country”, where a shocking number of voters read fake news as real news without either the skills or interest in “weighing and considering” what they hear and read, where technological “progress” continues to perpetuate our literal-minded, bot-driven Zeitgeist? I return to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prophetic essay “The American Scholar” for both answers and the proper witness to our increasingly illiterate age, particularly this passage, which serves as a vintage caveat for those Americans who don’t read books:

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,—with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. But for the evidence thence afforded to the philosophical doctrine of the identity of all minds, we should suppose some pre-established harmony, some foresight of souls that were to be, and some preparation of stores for their future wants, like the fact observed in insects, who lay up food before death for the young grub they shall never see.

Walt Whitman opined, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” A vast sea of great poetry and fiction continues to fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries across the country. The books are there, waiting. Their authors have absorbed their country, such writers as George Saunders, Karen Russell, John Ashbery, Philip Levine, David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Ruth Stone, Adrienne Rich, August Kleinzahler, Toni Morrison, Ethan Canin, Rebecca Solnit, Robert Hass, Naatasha Trethewey, Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, and many many more, including just as many strong international writers. They have laid up “food before death for the young… they shall never see.”

Chard deNiord is the poet laureate of Vermont and author of six books of poetry, most recently Interstate, (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). His book of essays and interviews with seven senior American poets (Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall. Maxine Kumin, Jack Gilbert, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, Robert Bly) titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century American Poets was published by Marick Press in 2011. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Providence College and a trustee of the Ruth Stone Trust. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz.