Dispatches | July 30, 2007

It always amazes me when I hear about the dwindling literary readership. The subject comes up in meetings for The Missouri Review from time to time, noted with apathy or lament or sometimes just this simple observation: people care less about literature now than fifty or a hundred years ago. Matt Pearce compared the modern literary scene to tundra in his last blog entry on this site, and that’s not far off.

But this reality astonishes me. The average person’s potential to achieve and learn has increased exponentially in the last hundred years, and even more dramatically in the last ten years, in the last five, even. In America and elsewhere, modern access to knowledge presents a potent vehicle for education. Sure, college costs soar and the professional educational system can, in many cases, be in shambles, but I’m talking about something a little deeper and more important than that.

Let me explain.

A scene from the movie Good Will Hunting always stands out in my mind. The genius protagonist, Will, is looking to impress a woman in a bar and gets into a confrontation with a young Harvard know-it-all. Will shows up the Harvard guy by quoting from textbooks to tear the other man’s arguments to shreds. Finally he takes a jab at the expensive college education itself: “Fifty years from now you’re gonna do some thinking on your own and realize,” Will says, “that you wasted $150,000 on an education that you could’ve gotten for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.”

This statement really hit home with my young mind in the late ’90s. A person with a will to read and learn can walk into any library and open almost any book from the evolving canon of world literature.

The last decade has offered even more opportunities with the onset of the digital age. Not only do books exist for free at the local library, but older books are found in their entirety online. Websites like Bartleby and Project Gutenberg present countless works of prose and poetry that are no longer copyrighted. I interned for a political campaign in 2006 for a few weeks and read about half of This Side of Paradise online on my down hours.

Now, more than ever in history, any person on the streets can choose to learn anything they want from a library or a website. One might imagine this would produce the most enlightened generation ever, a world of streetside Shakespeares and coffeeshop Newtons. Yet it’s not the case, and to all of you reading this, I’m essentially asking you why.

Sure, I’ve got some of my own ideas. Just look back through the TMR Blog for some good starting points. My last entry mentioned a British publisher cutting classics down in size for more convenient reads. Alex Streiff talked about the lack of letter writing and the breakdown of eloquent communication. Patrick referenced financial blows to the independent publishing industry. Increasingly a gap separates the literary audience and the broader population, which seems a bit bizarre. The world’s poised for a new and wider-ranging renaissance, given our new options and access to knowledge–people would just have to want it first.

What’s happening to the literary readership? Is it still out there, perhaps transforming with the new trends in media and communication? Maybe a person who in decades past would have been a famed poet now seizes the opportunities and creative outlets of YouTube. Perhaps those who would have relished the restless prose of Marcel Proust a half century ago now find more satisfaction in a good HBO series they rented on DVD. I don’t know. I’m curious about your thoughts.