On Literacy versus Reading Literature

Boredom murders the heart of our age / while sanguinary creeps take the stage / boredom strangles the life from the printed page
Forecast Fascist Future

I am tired of “literacy” propaganda. The problem is not literacy, but reading literature. Although illiteracy is definitely a problem, not reading literature, if one is literate, is an even more confounding state of emergency. The state of emergency is that we lack a common aesthetic reality, that is, a reality with a depth beyond the surface of so-called current events or reality tele-vision; or, if you prefer, we lack surfaces that are not mere superficial abysses.

Reading literature, although it must come after acquiring literacy skills, is actually more important than the acquisition of language. The Ancients told stories, not only for entertainment but also to create a shared language through which they could describe reality outside of that language; perhaps those who heard the tales of Homer would compare events in their own (communal) lives to events in Homer’s narrative. However, in the age of tele-vision, Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code, entertainment is all “literacy” seems to mean. We could all discuss the nature of scandal more effectively if more than a few of us had read Laclos; how easy it would be to explore perversion if we knew the scriptures of that holy book, Juliette.

I do not want to argue against entertainment. The reading of literature is rarely, if ever, purely entertaining. Reading literature should not be an exercise in masochism, nor should it be about brutalizing oneself to the point of insensitivity; if you do not like the book you are reading, you are not ready for it: put it down and begin another. It is not wrong to be entertained by what you read; but if you only read to be entertained, then the vapidity of your reading will be manifest in the content of your thought.

But what is the purpose of not being purely entertained by what one does, whether it be reading a novel considered literature or a tabloid article about a celebrity who is as distant from the reader, as the reader is distant from the celebrity, through screens and speakers? Perhaps there is no purpose in reading a novel that does not completely entertain you as the newest and shiniest Reality Tele-Vision media does. However, we may also pose the same question to the entertainment industry: what is its purpose? The purpose of literature and of reading literature is to dialectically approach meaning; the purpose of entertainment seems to be a stultification of intelligence through the negation of being.

I have seen young children, teenagers, and adults sit transfixed, for numerous hours, in front of tele-vision screens, not even seeming to care what they watch – so long as they are watching. By analogy, these various advertising campaigns promoting “reading” are doing the same (i.e. do not care what you read as long as you are reading); and let us not forget that many of these campaigns are sponsored by corporations, whose aim is not so much promoting a well-read population but more to gain publicity for themselves. And when “reading” is a gimmick of advertising for the corporate world of profit, this should signal an alarm for us; what books are they promoting? What best-seller has gained the most awards, sponsored by a corporation no less (perhaps even a financial institution)? This is an ideological state apparatus if ever there was one.

The more obscure one’s reading, the more particular the aesthetic reality one inhabits. Better to resist the lame conformity of best-sellers and the awards circle, better to engage with others’ who inhabit the same obscurity. “Aesthetic reality precedes [and determines] one’s ethical and moral reality.”

I would be the last to argue that literature has some sort of ethical, moral, or spiritual value; it is up to the reader to decide these qualities in a book and their relevance. However, these values can only be communicated and create community if we have the language to describe the events we may or may not feel are “fair,” “good,” or “interesting” – an ability which relies as much on aesthetic taste as it does on vocabulary. Our concepts of the aesthetic, ethical, and moral are derived from fiction. The author, as a stylist, presents us with a certain situation in which we read (or think we read) what s/he is trying to communicate whether it is an aesthetic, ethical, or moral proposition. We recognize an event similar to the author’s representation in our experience of the world and we compare; we can now ask: “Is that the way it is, or not?” We can confer with one another: “Do you think … ?” (In the case of a few authors it is the absence of such propositions that gives us pause and makes us wonder: “What could such an absence signify?”)

The media as an abstracted general whole is as tasteless and unhealthy as food from a fast-food restaurant. As such, taste for books and media reminds one of the documentary Super Size Me: one does not really care what one poisons oneself with, so long as one poisons oneself to prove a point, namely, how bad it is to poison oneself in the first place. Not all media is poison though; there are at least as many great films, paintings, sculptures, and songs, as there are books. However, we are witnessing the accelerating Disneyfication of literature, whereas these other forms were Disneyfied long ago.

There is only one reason I can think of why the reading of literature is so uncommon: reading, in general, is not seen as an activity so much as a pastime, a form of passivity. Taking the activity out of reading has at least these two effects: one pays less attention to the events the work is representing and one pays much less attention to the way in which the representation is ordered. Reading as an activity requires the effort of sustained attention; not that one needs to closely read every line of an 800 page novel, but that one should be attentive and try to notice how, what, and why the novel is written in this way.

Lastly, a reflection of the encroachment of business (or, as I think of it, busyness) into literature is the fact that, because we are all so busy, we simply do not have the time to think. And this is the exact nature of business, to kill the capacity for thought and replace it with “doing.” New Age Obscurantists’ who preach “living in the moment” (and who also, let’s face it, run a good business) are of this movement. Reading literature is about reflecting-into-self, so that one’s thoughts attain a kind of visibility through the work. The visibility of thought is the purity of language. Our constant need to do something, to do anything prevents us from this vision. Thus we are freed from the burden of thought. I recognize the need to have an economy, to be engaged in some form of work, to be free from thought to some degree – but I am thoroughly against humanity attaining total liberation from thinking.

I have met people who think Shakespeare is a word that refers to masturbation.


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