Thursday, October 15, 2009
What people mostly do on the Net is read (and write). Fortunately or unfortunately, most of what they read is not what could reasonably called "art." Blogs, web-sites, Wiki entries, sports sites, fan sites for bands, movie stars, movies; that seems to be mostly what people are looking at. If there were more "art texts" on the Net, would people be reading them? It all goes back to something fundamental about Western society, as it exists in 2009; most people learn early that serious reading is done in school. People associate literature with high school, college, and graduate school classrooms. It isn't just that literature is thought of as "school"; the layers of staid veneration with which these texts are treated in the classroom make the vibe much more like Sunday School. Depending who you ask, this could be considered a problem (and a societal liability) or not. I, personally, wish poems were much more than an "academic religion," indoctrinated into students who soon forget what they've learned.
It would be nice if the Net could engender a new breed of serious reader, capable of appreciation and analysis away from the classroom. Part of the problem (as I see it) is that many professors themselves believe in the religious conflation of literature and academia. Where literature is concerned, is school necessarily a "real" place? Privileging academia, where literature is concerned, is putting the cart before the horse. Writers write to edify the brains of their audience, not to have their work force-fed to unwilling victims. All art is meant to restore the liveliness to life, not to restore material to a professor who needs fodder for a survey course or a conference. The situation, down the ages, is really chicken or the egg: are people not reading because they're tired of being force-fed, or are they being force-fed because they're unwilling (even unable) to read on their own? The answer, I'm sure, is somewhere in the middle. But academics get so deeply involved in academia that the notion of a Reading Public (not just groveling students) leaves the picture altogether. It also neatly avoids the issue of relevance. I don't just let the general public off the hook: I think the decision not to read is a lazy one, and, without back-peddling into sterile pessimism, it seems like a kind of cultural degeneration is going on. Two hundred years ago, there was little to do but read; now, we have more amusements then any one person has time for. Still, I'd argue that for general enrichment, on the greatest number of possible levels, it's hard to beat reading. Maybe people being force-fed literature is not such a bad thing. But I sure would be gratified if that "luxuriant misgrowth," a Reading Public, would declare itself to the world.