Why I don’t read literature in the global age

njoy! 4get wastin tym @ lit class LOL!

I was looking to widen my horizons through reading literature recently and look what I found outside the book!

An animated world map
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A stretched world that’s already shrunk so small that I don’t know where to look to expand my mind anymore.

I saw people in Washington Square Park yesterday eating South Indian dosas wrapped like a Mexican burrito from a street vendor  and I read in the news that they got 3G on top of mount Everest at last.

And I’m running into people I know at the airport waving at me as I’m entering the tarmac half-way around the globe entering other tarmacs themselves boarding flights departing half-way around the globe holding babies and dogs that have more identification papers with them than a professor with a Ph.D.

I’m really confused now when I say half-way around the globe because I don’t really know what the starting point is from where my half of the globe begins.

I know this is all for the best for me because I read this week on the internet that a scientist has said that when you finally meet the aliens don’t tell them your location because they may not be so benign after all.

I think my location, at least in my head, is uncertain enough so ’em aliens are bound to be thoroughly confused.

I’m thinking when I meet the aliens I’ll hand them a copy of my old Oxford Book of English Verse and see what they think. We don’t need those literary tomes here anymore on earth except for a few short quotes within 140 characters.

Anyway, humans are in a post-literary age now considering no government or people think literature’s worth it to fund or nurture much anymore.

OMG! UR GR8 world

As I sit here at my computer today, with the collective knowledge of the world at my fingertips on Google and potentially the whole world reachable through my phone, Skype, email, blog, smartphone, text, Facebook, Pinterest, and Wikipedia I know the world has shrunk beyond anything we’ve seen before.

It’s brought the world to me and me to the world.

I can do stuff through my blog now which no amount of screaming from my rooftop would have allowed in the past.

Story Time - A Thank-You to the Teachers
Story Time (Photo credit: betsystreeter)

In such a world, the age-old wisdom regarding the benefits of reading literature has all but disappeared. At most, one could use a book or two on a long train ride or devote a few seconds to reading a tweet or two on the way to work.

And work means developing the network that gets the world still closer, running between cities, managing workers in different locations, benefiting from disparate groups increasingly wanting the same things, basking in the closeness of the globe,  moving things from one place to another, providing services that we didn’t know we ever needed, wondering at ourselves as global citizens at the acme of civilization.

It does not involve Jane Eyre sitting at the window, covered by curtains, in her  corner, reading Bewick’s History of British Birds because there was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Our world has little space for us reading Jane Eyre in the activity of reading the old book.

For my part, I would just ask Jane to give up all that reading, books and bird talk and just Google.

UR Jobless Miss Bronte! RUOK? XOXO

English: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte by J. H....
English: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte by J. H. Thompson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Charlotte Bronte were alive today, she’d probably be unemployed or better still, sending out a million resumes a day with the following qualifications in the following order:

Objective:

Seeking a challenging position as governess in a household with one or more children of reading age. Opportunity to exercise reading and writing skills desirable but not required.

Skills:
  • Proven ability to tend to snotty-nosed children
  • Demonstrated skill in playing nursery rhymes and children’s software on IPad, Galaxy and other tablets
  • Advanced knowledge of cooking, cleaning and washing household items
  • Proficient in writing grocery lists on Smartphone apps, letters on WORD, and filling out household forms on pdf documents
  • Excellent written and communication skills in person and paper formats. Fast learner in e-format.
  • Ability to assist in conceptualizing, drafting and revising book-length works on traditional paper or electronic formats [Note to self: delete for most jobs due to perceived over qualification]
English: Old book bindings at the Merton Colle...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6 Lit myths 2gud2BTru

Having pondered the above situation of a current Charlotte Bronte, I decided to do away with my literary  pursuits  post haste and devoted myself entirely to bursting the following myths about literature and reading:

**Myth 1. Reading literature widens horizons:

Thanks to technology, the world is already shrunk for me. I’m not interested in widening it  but I don’t know what to do with the world now that it’s so small.

[I have a niggling doubt that good old William Blake in that book I handed the aliens may have been providing a clue when he churned out the following lines somehow so many years ago:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour ]

Should I go back and ask the aliens for my book of verse back in case this bloke Blake or whatever his name is said something more there?

**Myth 2. Literature gets rid of stereotypes:

I heard the other day that someone got into a place of worship in Wisconsin last month and shot at people just because they were wearing turbans. Or perhaps because they were brown.

Now, I’ve been thinking, science tells me they’re brown just because they have more of a pigment called melanin in their skin cells. And maybe they have a reason for wearing turbans. Just like some wear this long thin piece of cloth tied around their necks quite arbitrarily that they call a tie.

Everything about that whole incident  seemed so irrational to me that it still hurts to think about it.

Reading Gulliver
(Photo credit: Dublin City Public Libraries)

[But I can think of a book where people got shrunk (or were they just little people?) and they fought all the time. Sometimes simply because groups couldn’t agree on which end of the egg to break first to eat it boiled. Gulliver’s Travels! Someone in that book said: “Honey, I shrunk the kids! And they’re behaving hurtfully. ” Or was it a movie?

Now, had we read up a bit more on Sikh art and literature, if not Jonathan Swift, would  we still be inclined to act so strangely in a place of worship?]

**Myth 3. Literature encourages empathy by putting us in the shoes of others unlike ourselves:

I don’t need this aspect of literature anymore. I have my laptops, tablets, smartphones that update me with the news from around the world regularly. I keep myself informed about the plight of people. I have knowledge at my fingertips.

[Just the other day, I heard someone say, what’s the point of increasing compensation for factory workers? They’ll just be more lazy and do drugs with the extra money.

English: First edition title page

I remembered my old copy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and  how I had seen the world through the eyes of Mary’s father and lover who were both factory workers. Rather sentimental, true, but human. And that worker Stephen Blackpool of Coketown from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

Now the guy who said don’t pay the workers much for their own good  was working for a white collar job of course. I don’t think he has ever heard of Mary Barton. But I couldn’t agree with him immediately because Mary’s face came in the way.

What turns knowledge into enlightenment?

Where did I misplace that book now?

I had better search Google Scholar and read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel again in full-text!

**Myth 4. It’s possible to tap into the collective wisdom of our civilization through literature:

Now this is the most obsolete of reasons why people must have read the classics in the olden days. Fortunately I don’t need to read anymore. If I have a problem, I can tap into hundreds of forums. Or better still, I can get a synopsis of a wise book somewhere by someone else.

In a nicer, cooler way with pictures.

.mad world
.mad world (Photo credit: pixelens photography)

In my global age, I only move sideways around the globe from place to place. I don’t like moving temporally down the ages. I’ve figured out how naive those old guys must have been  locally stuck to their own regions writing long letters in longhand sealing them with wax in the candlelight. What did those guys in powdered wigs and cotton loincloths know about civilization?

This point being incontrovertible, I stopped reading and moved on to bursting the next myth.

**Myth 5. You can find yourself through quiet contemplation of literature:

Now that the Himalayas are all 3G covered, the ancient sages must be having a great time with an additional source of wisdom up there in their solitude.

But I’ve been trying some solitude down here myself on the internet. I love that there are so many voices here. The din prevents biased viewpoints about anything. But everyone is talking and I don’t know who to listen to. They’re all alive (mostly), learning as they go, just like me, about life, love, literature, science, people.

Who can I learn from? Are my life’s problems really that new?

Perhaps if I’d lived for a while longer than the rest of us, just a few generations more, I could check out some patterns about people’s lives and match them with my own. (But the immortals I know–Tithonus of Greek mythology and Ashwathama of the Indian epic Mahabharata are both literary figures and I’ve given them up now.)

everything comes back full circle
everything comes back full circle (Photo credit: pupski)

How come all those people and patterns of emotions and problems in those books I gave away  and folklore I refused to hear from my Grandmother and epics I endured with disdain seem coming back to me through troubled voices here on the phone, through Skype, on email, on blogs, by pings, by text messages, on Facebook, on advice columns and on forums?

What did those people do faced with their old problems in new worlds confused in changing times that they recorded in their literature?

I remember a book of verse I had that recorded Tennyson’s wonder and confusion at the changed understanding of the globe of his times through geological discoveries:

There rolls the deep where grew the tree

O earth, what changes hast thou seen,

There, where the long street rolls hath been

The stillness of the central sea.

**Myth 6. I won’t read literature in the global age

I’m thinking, if those aliens turn out benign, it might not be a bad idea to ask them if  they’ll be willing to fund a project or two which will explore how literature can benefit society in the age of technology in a shrinking world.

My thoughts are also running in that direction today because of something that happened just now. As I tried Googling for “There rolls the deep” to quote above (to show you how well-read I am), most of my hits turned up Adele’s “Rolling in the deep” pushing  In Memoriam so far down that I got thinking that this omniscient being called the internet is not so unbiased after all.

Rather than displacing the pursuit of literature and the humanities, perhaps the aliens will see some benefit in exploring the elusive essence of what makes us human down the ages.

Or perhaps I’ll just ask them to return my book.

Sigh!

whr r u? w8 4 me! i wnt my bk bak! 2 nite? 2 moro? whn?

*

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43 thoughts on “Why I don’t read literature in the global age”

  1. Glad you liked my blog post re Ethiopia. Enjoyed reading this because I am switching from teaching math for years to English IV in high school, and yes, they have to read Jane Eyre. The girls will like the and the boys…Once my Ethiopian blog posts are completed, I will switch back to all sorts of literary stuff, recipes, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You caught me there. Started checking your blog and thought, oh-this-is-nice-and-oh-that-and-ah-even-nicer and than stumbled upon the headline…. I was very relieved when I came to the last line!

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  3. Brilliant and heart-wrenching post as I look around and see where technology is taking us. As writer Tom Robbins said, “People who sacrifice beauty for efficiency get what they deserve.”

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  4. I think that the problem will selling the idea of literature/books to people, especially children and adolescents as whole, is that there are other forms of entertain that quickly contextualize and condense information so our brains don’t have to work as hard to take in the information. The modern age is extremely proficient, and thus has enabled us to fit more things into our daily schedules, which can cause an information overload at times. If we have to do something that we think takes too much time or effort, we won’t do it.

    The paradigm about literature must shift from a sole ‘entertainment’ point of view’ to ‘building and maintaining literacy’ point of view. I work with children who have been placed in special education for reading disabilities, and consequently they disdain reading because they believe they are not good at it, which they feel makes them dumber than their peers. Even if a child does not have a reading disability yet they fall behind at least 2 grade levels by the fourth or fifth grade, the attitude is “just make another jail cell” because majority of incarcerated youth have express difficulty and/or disinterest in reading, thus making a direct correlation between youth literacy and juvenile detention.

    When it comes to the myth of widening horizons as you point out, I would say that a lack of literature severely diminishes the future horizons for at-risk-youth. It widens mental horizons and expands on imaginations, whether it’s classic literature or modern literature. Being able to read well is still one evaluation of literacy and has been ever since the Bible was written.

    Myth 2 I absolutely agree with. However, I don’t think it was ever the point of literature as a whole. I see it as just a philanthropist ploy to tap into people’s fear of being closed-minded in order to get them to read.

    Myth 5 points back to myth one in a roundabout way. Yes, literature can rehash the same plots and protagonist’s challenges, but the point of doing so is to create something relatable to one’s own life and thus create a connection from art to audience. I realize that this can come in many forms other than a book, but literature is another medium in which this can be done.

    At the end of the day, I am a writer and an educator. I read as one method to improve upon my own work (sometimes reading to do historical research or to do a call-back to a piece of literature written a long time ago) As an educator, I have to listen to my students’ interests and bring in or suggest books that cater to those interests.

    Reading a book is unlike reading a news article on the internet or something on a forum. While the latter two condense information, it is discarded as soon as it is no longer needed or as the next breaking news piece comes out. Literature allows you to get into the deep melancholy of another world, learn all the details of it, and become deeply moved.

    To close, (finally) I find myth 6 really funny, (in a I laughed out loud sort of way) and it implies that one does not need to be familiar with or read every classic ever written in order to be considered intelligent. This post was very thought provoking and I really enjoyed it. 🙂

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  5. I adore this post and it’s one of the reasons I signed up for your emails as you speak to the very soul of what I want to see stay alive. I’m not anti-tech at all but the quiet contemplation is so beautiful for me that I never want to see it as something ‘once done’. It would break my heart. I have several posts planned introducing this topic an then really hitting it home. You have done such in this post and I thank you.

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  6. I just like reading, I don’t really make value judgments on this or that form of media.
    . . .
    I feel so alone. ;-;
    Naaaaw. I’m just kitten around, kidding. :3

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  7. It’s also good to note that the study of “literature” nowadays (as done in the academy) can involve anything from tracing the ideologies inherent in past and modern works in order to recreate culture back through history and see how that’s affected people now (i.e., how was the Indian Rebellion of 1857 portrayed in England, and how did that impact racist anti-Indian attitudes then and still now?). There’s also a focus on retracing social networks and publication circuits to, again, uncover history, especially of minority groups who have been institutionally forgotten.

    Also, the more a person is exposed to different kinds of work, the better writers they’re likely to become. Twitter may be informative, but it’s unlikely to improve your vocabulary–or at least that’s not the function it serves for most people. It also doesn’t encourage focus the way that sitting down to a long book does…

    (Also, reading books is fun!)

    I’m not anti-internet or anti-tech, and of course, “literature” as a reified concept doesn’t really exist anymore in academic circles anyway, but old literature is still pretty useful (no wonder you’re still reading it!). I also look forward to the digital humanities and the incoming of hybrid forms: hyperlinks in fiction, web-based publishing and flash-illustrated poetry (which universities are [ironically] embracing as the new “literature” to a degree)…

    Anyway, that was a bit longer than I meant it to be, so…yay books!

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  8. a well argued piece though I still enjoy literature: both thew reading and writring of it. btw I’ve added you to my ‘List Of Favourites’

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  9. Well, I agree with you in regard to the myths, literature doesn’t really manage all that crap. In fact, I loathe sociological and philosophical kind of books that seemed more interested in teaching you some useless stuff rather than entertaining you while you read it. Still, I’m compelled to defend literature for I love it very much.

    Literature for me is a source of entertainment, and that’s no myth, it’s a tested virtue. Pictures may be nice, so comics are also one of my hobbies; movies and series might be better given sound and moton. If you want to top it with interactivity then video games rule above them all (and yeah I’m a gamer too), and mass multiplayers further allow you to play with other people around the world and make friends you’ve never even met, so the world has become too small, just as you said, but in the end, for any entertainment source, it’s the CONTENT that matters the most and literature is a constant source of it. Say, my favorite author is R. A. Salvatore, and when one of his books comes out I always manage to get my hands on it, but what would be of him and his awesome fantasies if he was unable to make a living out of his writing? Making a living out of writing also forces him to write a lot, so you get a new book every year instead of just whenever he feel like it or whenever his routine allows him time to write, and that’s good for me.

    I definitely wouldn’t want literature to dissappear.

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  10. So very rich, your bottled words. The thought of 3G being across the Himalayas where the sages once became enlightened is a very sobering one. Perhaps this quiet contemplativeness is about to become another lost art of the 21st C… I hope not.

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  11. Thanks for reading (and liking) my post at HereticaBlog. We share stomping grounds, and one thing that gives me hope are all the people, of all ages, reading books I consider important. They consider them important, too–and gratifying, enrichening, and worth their time. Life is short; quality is its own redemption

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  12. Really brilliant. Even more than the loss of appreciation for a beautiful turn of phrase or a memorable, deeply moving literary work, I mourn the lost nudging toward the ‘inward journey’ encouraged – if unintentionally – by great literature. I know few young adults who appreciate quiet periods of contemplation and reflection. Most seem to be compelled to move continually, texting, watching any TV “whatever”, calling, never still. And read a “great book”? They wouldn’t have the patience for “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Hmmmm. I think I’ll blog on that 🙂

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    1. Do blog. I’ll be eager to read. I guess the young people will find modes of their own and new genres will develop and if Dickens were alive today, he might’ve written serial e-books. He was a popular author and he’d know what to do. But what’s imp is that the appreciation of *literature* and in-depth thinking survives and that technology becomes a help, not the focus.

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  13. Loved your post! I hope you’re not correct. I think of books as giving us an insight on how life should be lived. You’re right, we find all manner of self-help blogs providing advice ad nauseam on how to live our life, use our spare time, publish a book, read tea leaves, and watch the stars. There’s not much about simply being in the moment!

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  14. No no no! And NO! Funding must go on.
    There is a contempt for everything which is old, antiquated and considered to be old hat.
    But some of us are hanging on in there trying to make sense of the old non-digital world as well. We are losing, have lost so much and it isn’t just literature. We are so wrapped up in our technologies and yet if it all failed we would be as nothing.
    Get those aliens on board. I bet the reason they arrive (if they do) is because they recognise the importance of funding literature and the arts, history, archaeology: the glue that keeps people, people.
    We have to keep reading and writing, we have to keep the books, we have to keep some of the ‘old way’ of doing things. Yes I want to use the digital technologies, but I want to save some of the old world too.
    Love my Kindle.
    Love my real library of gorgeous books. Not mutually exclusive.

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    1. Yes. Some of the carvings on old edifices and parchments also tell us imp stuff. Sometimes we just tend to devalue old modes simply because we have new ones that we think make us better. But I’m not anti-technology at all and I don’t think there can be a post-literary age as some readers thought!

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  15. Great post. A day ago I was told to read books online, when I expressed that I don’t do that, I like the feel of a good book in my hands, I got a shocked look in return. On one hand I’m glad someone is still reading even if on a computer, but on the other hand I wonder how much reading is getting done just based on the distractions that come with a computer.

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  16. Brilliant piece thank you. At a dinner the other night,I was talking to a graduate of one of the oldest universities in the US about his degree -(do they call it that in the States?), and so shocked that he was majoring in fairy tales that I asked if he’d done any literature during his years at varsity. He said yes, he’d been lucky enough to do a three month course in Russian literature… He’d DONE Crime and Punishment and some Tolstoy short stories,but he hadn’t read War and Peace, Anna Karenina or even Dr Zhivago. I never DID Russian literature, but I’d read that little list for fun and also from curiosity, in my teens!,
    If that’s a sample of modern education, then no wonder the humanities are evaporating, even without the help of technology…

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    1. Thanks for your comment! They do some fairly complex work studying fairy tales though 🙂 and yes, they do call it a degree here. But I know what you mean by the gaps in education. People do have a very spotty education sometimes, very specialized in some areas and none in imp ones.

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  17. Interesting post, but I’m tired of this “people don’t appreciate literature anymore.” Back in the day, I’m talking Shakespeare time, there weren’t nearly as many forms of entertainment. People who don’t enjoy reading confuse me, but I can’t blame them, there are a million other things to do!

    As for literature itself, it’s as good as it’s ever been I think. Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz has books coming out next week (or two) that I’m looking forward to.

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    1. True. There *was* no golden age of lit. Or perhaps other fields are experiencing their golden age now and that’s making it seem like reading is taking a back seat. I’m feeling optimistic with you.

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    1. Honestly, I think the separation of highbrow and mass market fiction is a false one. “Jane Eyre” was a huge blockbuster in its own day, a classic today. I know mass market fiction is booming right now on the internet and in some developing countries such as India where a newly literate population is entering the reading public. I have to think this through but I guess what I was referring to mostly was a disdain for the humanities in general, “old,” thoughtful books in particular and any reading pursuits that require sustained concentration and reading that’s not immediately “useful” or disposable after a few minutes of entertainment. Thanks for raising an EXCELLENT point though. 🙂

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      1. The And Rand literature revival is a great example of this, although I feel like it was influenced by recent political events more so than anything else.

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