Off the Books

Soon, we’ll be curling up with a good nothing...

Petri Dishes

Nobody reads anymore. It’s not that we’re illiterate. We’re just un-booked.

Someone in the business recently estimated that there are only 80,000 reliable buyers of serious fiction left in North America. And that was before we lost Michael Jackson. Every year, someone comes out with a study explaining that boys don’t read because, in books, the proportion of car chases to women talking about their feelings tends to be somewhat tilted in favor of the latter. But what’s the excuse for us women?

Maybe we are confused about what a book is. Accustomed to asking the Internet all our life questions, like “Do you recommend this restaurant?” and “What is a ‘bailiwick’?,” we now turn to it for our reading material as well. But this habit can be deadly. As I type this, there are thousands, if not millions, of people reading something called fanfiction—which is what you come across when you search for literature online but are unclear on how to spell the book title. The two are similar, except that where literature usually has things like grammar and themes, fanfiction has things like exclamation points and other exclamation points. You can see how these misunderstandings occur. It’s easy to imagine some poor soul searching the internet for “The Great Gatsby” and finding “The GREAT!!!! GATSBY: My Ending.” “This must be literature,” I can imagine him thinking. “What gives it away is its enthusiasm for its subject matter.”

And if you thought this was the exception, dreaming instead that the Internet could be a great bastion of hope for readers to share their thoughts, think again. On GoodReads.com, someone named Brad has this insight to share: “The Great Gatsby: This book becomes far better when you take all of Gatsby’s mystery and just think of him as Batman.”

As a writer, I find this troubling.

Why aren’t we reading? It’s not that television has gotten more interesting. Or that we have. If anything, we are less interesting than we have ever been before. The other day I spent two hours staring at a wall. This in itself does not indicate that I’m boring, except that I try to tell it as an anecdote at parties. (“Have I told you the wall story?” I ask.)

Reading, unfortunately, demands your full attention. Back in the halcyon days before the Internet, books only had to contend with homework, sports, and television, so it stood a chance at getting some of that mental space. But the shift was taking place, even among people who wound up at Harvard. The thought, “If I’d had cable in my childhood, I’d be able to relate to people better,” crosses my mind several times per day, as my friends debate the minutiae of vintage Nickelodeon shows. These are all people who, if given a book and an ultimatum, would produce an insightful paper on it. But read one? Recreationally? That’s so 1890s.

The reason these new technologies get the jump on reading: You can do them while you’re doing other things. Our generation likes the sound of that. We were born multitasking. Now, we jog along with our iPods and watch online television while we Gchat. But reading is a different matter. I know from personal experience that it is extremely difficult to read while you work out, especially on a Stairmaster.

Pleasure reading has long been an American ideal—generations of schoolchildren have headed home for the summer toting recreational reading lists. But try to pitch it to a group of non-readers and they quickly become suspicious. “This is a book,” you explain. “It’s like a textbook, but enjoyable, and you don’t have to take notes in the margins. You can, of course. William Blake wrote a lot of marginalia in all his books. But, then again, he didn’t bathe very often.” At this point you realize that you are rambling and have to start over. “This is a book,” you say, holding up the rectangular, clothbound object and shaking it at them. “Go sit somewhere quiet by yourself and read it.” They look at you. “It’s not antisocial!” you find yourself shouting. “You have to do it by yourself, but you can talk about it afterward! Oprah does it! Monthly!”

But that may be the rub. For reading is anti-social, and it does require focus. If there are two words that accurately describe our generation, those words are “social” and “unfocused.” And this is a shame. Books are wonderful. They are like people, except they mind less when you put them down and wander off to eat something. A character in a book by Proust once noted that, if you could subscribe to receive a page or two of a great book instead of a newspaper at breakfast every day, everyone would be better off. If only Proust were on Twitter. Instead, we hang with bated breath on the every tweet of people like Al Gore and Miley Cyrus (“Thank you Salt Lake for being so amazing and supportive.”) Sometimes, you just want to get away from it all, to immerse yourself in the words of someone who actually does know more than you do, to sit down somewhere peaceful and think something exciting. Sometimes, you just want to read a book. And for times like that, there’s nothing like a book.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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