Earlier this week, the National Endowment for the Arts came out with a disturbing report:
Americans — particularly young Americans — appear to be reading less for fun, and as that happens, their reading test scores are declining. At the same time, performance in other academic disciplines like math and science is dipping for students whose access to books is limited, and employers are rating workers deficient in basic writing skills.
This report builds upon a 2004 NEA analysis that offered up a bleak assessment of the American reader. It turns out that reading, especially the reading of literature, has been in steady decline over the last 20 years. For the first time, less than half of the adult population reads novels, poetry or plays.
The first part of the solution is obvious: we need more Harry Potter’s. J.K. Rowling managed to turn the sparkling adventures of a boy wizard into a cultural event. Her superb stories seduced millions of kids (and adults) into reading a work of fiction.
But revitalizing the act of reading will also require us to undergo a larger cultural shift. I believe that our culture has devalued literature. We’ve turned the novel into nothing but a form of entertainment, a pretty diversion for a rainy day, a bit of escapism before we fall asleep. (Poetry has suffered an even more depressing descent.) The end result is that literature has become merely another pastime, forced to compete with our constantly expanding array of entertainment options, from cable television to online video games. Not surprisingly, The Iliad is regularly trounced by World of Warcraft.
Literature, however, is not merely entertainment. The point of my book is that great art is capable of teaching us about ourselves, revealing important truths about how the mind works (often before science). When we marginalize literature, we miss out on a profound source of knowledge about the human condition.
Consider Virginia Woolf. The first thing to note about Woolf is that she took her art very seriously. Before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf wrote in her diary that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” She wanted her novels to capture an aspect of human reality that had never before been described. The eminent novelists of her time – “Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy” – ignored the mind’s interiors. “They have looked,” Woolf wrote, “at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at life, never at human nature.”
Woolf tried to invert this hierarchy. She wrote novels that followed the flow of our consciousness, tracing the “flight of the mind” as it unfolds across time. “Only thoughts and feelings,” Woolf wrote to Katherine Mansfield, “no cups and tables.” This writerly form allowed Woolf to chronicle the texture of our thought, to put the brain on the page. As she wrote in her essay “Modern Fiction,” Let us [the modern novelist] record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”
In my book, I go on to dissect a few scenes from To the Lighthouse to show how, exactly, Woolf documents our consciousness with startling scientific prescience. (It has a lot to do with emergence and the process of attention.) My point here, however, is that treating Woolf’s novels as nothing but elegantly written stories, a high-brow form of entertainment, is to miss out on a crucial aspect of the art. The reason her modernist fiction continues to be relevant is because it reflects a crucial aspect of human experience, distilling the psychological details of real life into prose and plot. That’s why her novels have endured: because they feel true, because they capture a layer of reality that cannot be described in any other way.
But back to the kids. Of course, nothing will make Virginia Woolf less popular than turning her into a form of intellectual medicine. Art is least appealing when it depends on snob appeal. In the end, classic works of literature are read for the same reasons as Harry Potter: because we want to know what happens. Because we’ve fallen in love with a character. Because the story has an end.
And yet, it’s also important to remind our children (and ourselves) that a book can teach us even as it entertains. Great literature is entertainment plus wisdom. Until our culture learns to take literature seriously, to treat novels and poems and plays with the significance they deserve, the literary arts will continue to be a form of entertainment that’s slowly going extinct.