For several years now I’ve been reading fewer books, from start to finish, that is. Not that my reading has diminished. If anything, I’m reading more now, more words certainly, every day, every week, daily and Sunday newspapers, weeklies, fortnightlies, monthlies, book reviews, quarterlies, portions of books, encyclopedia articles, professional publications, computer manuals and magazines, student papers. I used to spend much of my time reading books in their entirety, for pleasure, study, and work: fiction, plays, poetry, essays, criticism, biography, scholarship, reportage, reference sources.
I’m not alone in this shift. There must be millions by now who have all but abandoned books to keep up with breaking and broken news, speculation about news to come, and with their professions, hobbies, and daily living. Newsstands and periodical rooms in libraries today carry dozens of titles on recreation, cooking, finance, remodelling, gardening, home furnishing, politics, computers, consumer products, sports, cars, publishing, photography, new art, games, show business, fashion, architecture, gender concerns, raising children, old age, adolescence, pets, weddings and marriage. Some may consist of pictures mainly; others are made up of dense text with recondite vocabulary and allusions. They appeal to cherished interests and all sorts of private skills and preoccupations.
I didn’t have to put books aside. As a friend and colleague did, I could have cancelled magazine and newspaper subscriptions, given up impulse buying of specialized newspapers and journals, to find time for books. I still read a best seller or classic or specialized title as impulse, nostalgia, or need directs; I reread classics for the one course I still teach. I’ve come to accept as substitutes for some books the summaries, sometimes approaching condensations, that accompany essay length discussions in The New York Review of Books and in other unabashedly intellectual publications.
I am confident that I cover a wider, more diverse, and even a more nourishing intellectual landscape at this point in my life by grazing widely, occasionally pausing to linger over an appetizing patch, rather than feeding narrowly and deeply all the time.
There is no harm here I am convinced. Lamentation over the decline of reading must go back to the sacking of the libraries at Alexandria. Through the centuries, the appearances of periodicals, the phonograph, radio, film, television, computers have commanded more and more discretionary time of those enjoying the luxuries of literacy and leisure. Each new development produced its own Luddites bewailing and resisting change in the production, character, and consumption of reading matter. Printing generated regret over the disappearance of hand copying; the typewriter, of penmanship; the computer, of both handwriting and typing. We heard snobbish sniffing when esoteric out-of-print titles began appearing in inexpensive paperback editions, in spite of the clear gain for large classes of readers.
Writing and reading, essentially unweakened, have survived each onslaught and subversion. They have simply changed character. Under the relentlessly multiplying pressures of modern living, readers have learned to appreciate shorter forms and writers to write more economically. If less can’t always be more, it can often be nearly as much—at times better.
We have learned to find some of the pleasures of reading in other media. Computers themselves are supplementing and stimulating reading as web sites display cyberspace magazines (like Slate and Salon), selected contents of newspapers and magazines, and chapters of books. Some students now find their reading assignments on their computer monitors, whole books, in perfectly acceptable, if optically tiring, form.
Book publishing has undergone contorted metamorphoses in combining with international media cartels to create and meet new demands. Established magazines and newspapers retain their standards by sensibly accommodating, with bare compromise, to changing needs and expectations; new publications keep appearing to satisfy new audiences. Circulation figures shift from one publication to another; total readership remains much the same. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, regularly carry extended reports and series that reflect the sort of research and scholarship common in books. Some of these are as long as books, and now volumes appear made up entirely of material originally printed in newspapers and periodicals. More and more books are collections of essays. Best seller lists still show up although the titles are sometimes bizarre. Real poetry keeps appearing somewhere. Television commercials urge that children start reading early.
For decades movies and television have been squeezing out books. The very small good news lately has been the increasing popularity on cable television of C-SPAN’s weekend programs devoted to books, especially on Sunday nights, when Brian Lamb, C-SPAN’s head, interviews writers of non-fiction. C-SPAN has become a veritable school for readers. C-SPAN provides full teaching aids to follow up its presentation of books, which are always non-fiction, always “educational.”
Good talk, good drama, pithy expression, careful reporting, much of these never collected in books, have always belonged, in their ways, alongside good writing in books as sources for intelligent rumination and have involved similar skills in their making and appreciation. We respond to elegant utterance as much through listening and looking as through reading. The memorable formulations of Shakespeare, Yeats, Frost appear in moving public discourse, as in the unique eulogies delivered by John Kennedy Jr.’s sister and uncle; and routinely in political oration. Of course, these may be thinned out by much lesser declaration, like the unrestrainedly sentimental outpouring after the death of Princess Diana, which, if nothing else, reminded us of the democratic literary gamut public grief can achieve.
Insightful newspaper discussion of a television or film adaptation of a classic supplies shading and context for responding to the text, the sort of welcome enrichment that sensible footnoting and knowledgable introduction in books offer. Reading a book always allows one to pause, reread, linger over a delectable but, on screen or stage, inevitably transient moment that simply evaporates (although, of course, video tapes that can be stopped and replayed offer similar possibilities of reexamination). There is pleasure and learning in considering dramatized versions of important works of fiction.
Watching adaptations of literary classics on television or in movie houses, of course, can never replace the experience of reading them in their original form. Participating as an audience member in a Brian Lamb interview is not the same as reading the book under discussion. Reading a classic novel ideally precedes or follows the viewing of an adaptation, sometimes to prepare one, sometimes to help one figure out or savor an original performance.
Nevertheless, my late-life embrace of ephemera has opened perspective, heightened receptivity to the infinite world of experience and delight that book reading always indicated was there. In reducing my absorption of books, I have expanded my total reading in depth and breadth, and I am now blessed with a larger store in which to place my reading of books. If anything, however reduced in quantity, today it is that much richer, more rewarding, in quality.