Who Cares If Johnny Can't Read?

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April 17 1997 3:30 AM

Who Cares If Johnny Can't Read?

The value of books is overstated.

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As fears of cultural apocalypse have been transferred away from novels onto a series of high-tech successors (radio, movies, television, and now computers), books have acquired a reputation for educational and even moral worthiness. Books are special: You can send them through the mail for lower rates, and there are no customs duties imposed on books imported into this country. There have, of course, been endless culture wars fought over what kind of books should be read in school, but in discussions of adult reading habits these distinctions tend to evaporate.

The sentimentalization of books gets especially ripe when reading is compared with its supposed rivals: television and cyberspace. Valorization of reading over television, for instance, is often based on the vague and groundless notion that reading is somehow "active" and television "passive." Why it is that the imaginative work done by a reader is more strenuous or worthwhile than that done by a viewer--or why watching television is more passive than, say, watching a play--is never explained. Sven Birkerts' maudlin 1994 paean to books, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, is a classic example of this genre. Time art critic Robert Hughes made a similarly sentimental and mysterious argument recently in the New York Review of Books:

Reading is a collaborative act, in which your imagination goes halfway to meet the author's; you visualize the book as you read it, you participate in making up the characters and rounding them out. ... The effort of bringing something vivid out of the neutral array of black print is quite different, and in my experience far better for the imagination, than passive submission to the bright icons of television, which come complete and overwhelming, and tend to burn out the tender wiring of a child's imagination because they allow no re-working.

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I cannot remember ever visualizing a book's characters, but everyone who writes about reading seems to do this, so perhaps I'm in the minority. Still, you could equally well say that you participate in making up TV characters because you have to imagine what they're thinking, where in a novel, you're often provided with this information.

Another reason why books are supposed to be better than television is that books are quirky and individualistic and real, whereas television is mass-produced corporate schlock. But of course popular books can be, and usually are, every bit as formulaic and "corporatized" as television. The best books might be better than the best television, but further down the pile the difference gets murkier. Most of the time the choice between books and television is not between Virgil and Geraldo but between The Celestine Prophecy and Roseanne. Who wouldn't pick Roseanne?

If the fertility of our culture is what we're concerned about, then McLuhanesque musing on the intrinsic nature of reading (as if it had any such thing) is beside the point. Reading per se is not the issue. The point is to figure out why certain kinds of reading and certain kinds of television might matter in the first place.

Larissa MacFarquhar is a contributing editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at the Paris Review.

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