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Why Johnny Won't Read

After yesterday's discussion, it has become apparent that many people have not read the contemporary novels sanctioned by The New York Times. One possible explanation is that the new canon of The Times is ridiculous on its face, dismissive of women, Roth-centric, biased toward septuagenarians and laden with books so self-consciously literary and serious and commendable that they are not actually readable.

But I actually like the list. So does my very smart and well-read friend Jeff, the list-maker and Delillophile. Here's what Jeff wrote last night for the boodle:

"The most interesting thing is the new five that replaced the old five. In around 1975, Roger Sale wrote an essay called 'On Not Being Good Enough,' in which he pegged the big five at: Bellow, Mailer, Roth, Updike and Pynchon. The new big five is Roth, Updike, Morrison, DeLillo and McCarthy. In the first 50 years, the big three were Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Add in Ellison at the break and you have a pretty good picture of 20th C American novelists. Add in Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, James and Crane, and you have the whole American spectrum of important novelists. The odd people out are Dreiser, Salinger and Stone."

I told Jeff that a lot of us haven't read any of these books. Jeff's theory is that people, particularly younger folks, aren't as interested in "serious literary fiction" as were previous generations.

"Literature to them is boring. They have movies, DVDs, itunes and reality TV."

And they have the Internet.

"They can stay on the Internet all day and surf and chat. Interactivity is going to be the death of us all. It trades the life of the mind for the life of the moment."

He's just jealous because he doesn't have a blog.

I don't think serious reading is dead (witness all the book clubs), but many of us, clicking our way through life, and coping with multiple inputs at any given moment and countless distractions and info-vectors and whatnot ... I'm sorry, I lost track of my point....well, in any case, we may not have the time to read big fat groaning serious heavy literature, may have the knack for it or may have suffered an erosion of our reading skills. But I've got some helpful tips.

Follow these procedures and before you know it, you will be a Serious Reader again, capable of talking intelligently about not only the novels of Dickens but also about his poems, screenplays, TV scripts and record-album liner notes. You'll feel comfortable again at a party when people start discussing the new J.D. Salinger thriller. You'll never again feel the kind of shame you felt when you were the only person in the room who didn't know that most of the episodes of "Petticoat Junction" were written by William Faulkner.

1. Pick out a book that has good "hand-feel" and is between 200 and 300 pages long.

2. Make a cup of coffee.

3. Sit on the porch with the book and the coffee and then go back inside the house and pre-heat the oven because you suddenly want some of those instant biscuits that are basically fat-bombs.

4. Go back on the porch and read the first page.

5. Turn the page.

6. Admit to yourself that your mind has wandered, and go back to the first page and read it again.

7. Place biscuits on cookie sheet and put in oven.

8. Get newspaper and read The Reliable Source.

9. Return to porch and start on page one again and try really hard this time to pay attention and CARE about these fictional characters and their silly fictional lives.

10. Feed cat.

11. Get to the end of page 2 and take a much-needed breather, rewarding yourself with the Sports section.

12. Resume reading book until you discern, by sense of smell, that the biscuits are ready.

Enough reading! You're done! Reward yourself with the BISCUIT BOMBS!!!

By Joel Achenbach  |  May 16, 2006; 11:14 AM ET
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