A Short Solution to the Non-Reading Crisis

By Stan Persky | February 2, 2003

Ok, enough already. Ever since Globe and Mail features writer John Allemang published a very long essay last December about how he was reading less (and less), the columns of Canada’s national newspaper have been clogged with confessions, laments, and nattering about the non-reading crisis.

Columnists Russell Smith, John Doyle, and John Gray have all thrown in their two cents. A chorus of Globe and Mail readers dispatched the usual "shocked and appalled" missives to the editor. And Globe and Mail humourist David MacFarlane has offered a 12-step program to protect yourself against intimidating people who have read everything while you not only haven’t read much lately but, gulp, seem to be reading less than ever.

Can it be that the dreaded fin de lire, the long-predicted "end of reading" has arrived? People just don’t have enough time to read much anymore, Allemang reported, glancing guiltily at that unread set of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire tottering on his top shelf. What’s more, added Allemang, as he stumbled over Vikram Seth’s 1300-page doorstopper-sized Suitable Boy, people’s minds are too distracted to read long novels and their deficient attention-spans too disordered to focus on loquacious tomes.

Naturally, those of us in the writing and reviewing business have more than a passing interest in this suddenly-discovered crisis of non-reading. We’re not only sensitive to the writing on the wall (and on our paycheques), we’re even more alert to the writing disappearing from the wall. Emergency all-night think-tanks have been convened by worried Dear Editors up and down the land. We in the trenches have been ordered to not merely analyze dangerous trends in non-reading, but to come up with–and make it snappy!–a short, sure-fire, and quick solution to the non-reading crisis.

Good news. Relief is at hand. If would-be readers no longer have the time or attention-span to read weighty books, the solution is as plain as the button-nose on your face. In fact, the major clue to the solution of the non-reading crisis is found in the unread books cited by the non-reader confessions: every one of them, from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is as long and large as a library. It’s obvious that the New Non-Readers are not referring to books, but to long books, long-long books, and very long books. The sensible answer: read short books. As Thomas Huxley said upon recognizing the obviousness of Darwin’s theory of evolution, "Gee, why didn’t I think of that?"

The Short Books to Solve the Non-Reading Crisis program sets a 250-page maximum for any book. More than that, we’ve scientifically determined, and your mind will wander, or you’ll be due at the next activity on your overbooked schedule. But 250 pages is more than enough to get the job done. Sticking to 250 as the limit, here’s some of what you get:

Just to momentarily confine ourselves to 20th century bona-fide first-class literature, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness swiftly sails up the Congo in 132 pages, Albert Camus’s The Stranger is in the sun for only 119 pages, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover does it in 117 pages, James Joyce’s Dubliners is 220 pages of fabulous blarney (his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is even shorter), and Hermann Hesse’s cult classic, Siddhartha ends all suffering in 122 pages.

You say you want some CanLit? Coming right up. Timothy Findley’s The Wars is 191 pages, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion is 244 sheets of paperback parchment, Doug Coupland’s Generation X is a tight-lipped 211 pages, and Brian Fawcett’s postmodernist Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow is a swift 207 leaves.

Speaking of highbrow postmodern works, hey, no problemo. Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar presents his stylish tale in 130 pages, John Berger’s indelible Photocopies comes in at 180 pages, Samuel Beckett limns The Unnamable in 125 pages (his Molloy and Malone Dies are but a breath longer), and French intellectual Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text wraps it up in 67 pages, practically a Guinness record for brevity. Barthes’ reflections on photography, Camera Lucida are a snappy 119 pages, and his quirky autobio, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, is a svelte 180 pages.

We’re just scratching the surface here, but the short books solution provides just as much non-fiction, from Plato’s Symposium at 121 pages, to Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz in 187 in-the-nick-of-time pages, to V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization in 175 pages. And if you want to know What Does It All Mean?, philosopher Tom Nagel explains it in a crisp 101 pages.

Critics of our solution will no doubt describe it as simplistic or worse. But perhaps the description of the non-reading crisis is a bit simple-minded to start with. (By the way, we notice with slight alarm that some of the people who have guiltily confessed to reading practically nothing these days continue to publish book reviews in the Globe and elsewhere. Are their assessments to be entirely trusted, we wonder.) Maybe the problem has less to do with leisure time and overloaded minds, and more to do with choices and values in our lives–but that’s a whole other argument. For now, let’s stick to solutions. Not only is brevity the soul of wit, succinctness is the essence of our postmodern era.

Oh, and by the way, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby is 182 pages, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises 247 (and his Old Man and the Sea way shorter than that), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, with Tonio Kruger thrown in for free, comes to only 191 pages… you’re getting the idea, right? Sorry to cut this short, but I gotta dash–to the bookstore.

Stan Persky is the author of Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire, 148 pages.

Vancouver, Feb. 2, 2003


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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