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What Good Are Books?

Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin decided to wrap up the decade by unburdening himself of “some year-end thoughts on… change in the realm of reading” (“In praise of words, not books,” G&M, Dec. 29, 2009). His big thought turns out to be that he thinks we could do with a lot less book reading.

But before he gets to that thought, Salutin starts off uncontroversially enough with remarks on the current anxiety about reading in electronic form versus reading books, or the “printed codex” as books are sometimes too cutely referred to these days. He points out that it’s not a big deal, which it isn’t. It’s a matter of habit and preference. Some people like to turn pages, other people like to click buttons or swipe touch-screens with their fingertips.

Though Salutin doesn’t mention it, we might add that while there’s no great objection to e-books, there’s also no pressing need for them, in the sense that Amazon Kindles or Sony Readers don’t offer any particular advantages over now-traditional paperbacks. By contrast, one can at least claim that cellphones, iPods, and Blackberries are technologies that do some things more conveniently, entertainingly and efficiently than older communication, entertainment and information devices. Electronic reading machines seem to have more to do with marketing technologies, fashionable accoutrements, and the state of capitalist economies than with usefulness.

I tend to view the whole anxious discussion about electronic versus print reading as pretty much a red herring. As a writer, I don’t care much whether you’re reading this sentence on a screen or on a page; I do care that you’re reading this. Insofar as the electronic/print reading debate fuzzifies the real issue, it’s merely a distraction.

At which point, columnist Salutin turns to the real issue. “Now let’s gaze into the abyss,” he says. “What if these changes lead to a decline in reading? Would it really be such a bad thing?” Salutin’s boldly going where Star Trekkers fear to tread is contained in his sly hint that a decline in reading wouldn’t “really be such a bad thing.” He then goes on to offer a sort of argument about why it wouldn’t be the end of the world as we know it.

Before we get to that argument “in praise of words, not books,” as Salutin puts it, let’s note that the decline of reading, especially book reading, is not a “what if” question. As far as I know, both by observation of students in the classrooms where I teach and from reading the stats, it’s a fact. (The stats, in case you’re interested, can be found in Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, 2008.)

But the decline in book reading is not simply a result of technological change. It’s a result, especially for young people, of widespread cultural change and consumerism. The junk culture dumped on them (and on most of the rest of us), whether it’s end-of-the-world videogames, Mixed Martial Arts, You Tube, Twitter tid-bits, or the phony “friending” of Facebook, has the effect of discouraging book reading and dumbing them down. Salutin, oddly, doesn’t mention any of this, and yet it’s the enveloping context in which the decline of book reading occurs.

Naturally, junk culture doesn’t necessarily have to produce “knowledge deficits.” As the technoboosters like to say, “There’s good stuff on the net, you just have to know where to look.” True, but if you’re blasting aliens on Modern Warfare while tuning in Lady Gaga on your iPod, texting your favourite vampire from your cellphone, and downloading/uploading YouTube/YouPorn moments, often all at once, it’s a little hard to read Naomi Klein’s The  Shock Doctrine, or anything else.  

Instead of a discussion of the conditions and consequences of current culture, Salutin offers a strange argument that quirkily counterposes words to books. It’s an argument meant, I think, to suggest that the loss of book reading isn’t a big deal. As I said before, whether you read electronically or on the page isn’t, I agree, a big deal; whether or not people read (books) is.

Salutin points out that words don’t equal books, and that’s not a bad thing. “Words actually belong to speech, which is the real human specific,” he says. “They preceded writing by millennia,” Salutin notes, then adds that writing “was a dumbed-down version of speech’s richness.” Oh? In his potted one-paragraph history of the relation between speech and writing, Salutin claims that the fruitful coexistence and balance between the two was destroyed by print 500 years ago. “Literacy became the sign of ‘civilization’; those without it were ‘primitive’.” Is Salutin going where I think he’s going? Namely: philistinism in the name of anti-elitism? Cranky uncle fulminations against “book-larnin’”?

Salutin assures us that “Canada’s greatest thinker,” Harold Innis, “felt that… the triumph of reading over speech led to the excesses of nationalism, world wars and other barbarities of the 20th century.” One can only hope that this idea wasn’t “Canada’s greatest thinker’s” greatest thought. Because it’s pretty dopey.

“How could books engender such cruelty?” asks Salutin. Good question. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a good answer. Salutin dances around this absurdity for a bit before settling on the punchline: “In my experience, there’s no correlation between being well-read and being an empathetic, kind person. Often enough, it’s the reverse.”

This is such muddle-headed musing — and that puts it mercifully — from the Globe’s main “progressive” columnist, that one can only wish him a comfy cave for his winter’s hibernation, and better things come spring. Since the ideological sub-text beneath these year-end thoughts remains invisible, it’s hard to know what Salutin is getting at.

But let’s assume he’s getting at what he says he’s getting at: Would a decline in reading “really be such a bad thing”? Or, more bluntly: What good are books? The answer to the first question is: Yes, a decline in book reading would really be a bad thing, and since the decline in book reading is already occuring, we can say, It’s already a bad thing. The reason a decline in book reading is a bad thing is because it leaves people more ignorant. And an ignorant populace is not the best way to run a democracy. Substituting Fox TV-style shouting and propaganda is not a good replacement for the kind of thinking that books are best at providing. 

The answer to the second question, What good are books?, is slightly more complicated. I take that question seriously not only to remedy Salutin’s mindlessness, but because I think it’s a question that is on the minds of a lot of my students. The corollary question on their minds — or at least the one I ran into last semester — is, Can we make judgments about art, or anything else, beyond our obvious subjective responses? (I’ll save the corollary question for another occasion, and stick to books here.) First, though, let’s clear away the obfuscating underbrush:

There’s no war between words-as-speech and words-as-writing. It’s a false dichotomy. Where I work, we use both. I’m one of the disappearing breed of classroom teachers who engages in what’s known (a little self-flatteringly) as “the Socratic method.” Instead of lectures, we have conversation, arguments, back-and-forth exchanges — in short, words. So, even though I’m a proponent of books, I’ve got nothing against speech. However, it’s also the case that I have a reading list in the courses I teach, and I expect the students to read the books on the list. (And, mirabile dictu, sometimes they do.)

What’s the point of them reading the books? Well, if pressed, I’d say, So, they’ll know something. The aim is not the therapeutic one of turning them into more empathetic persons, though, who knows, that might happen, too. In any case, their problem is not lack of empathy, it’s ignorance.

Let’s get down to cases. One of the books on the reading list last semester was Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2008). Mate is a medical doctor who worked with drug-addicted patients in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside neighbourhood for a decade. His book is an account of the people who live there, a self-examination of addiction in contemporary society, a survey of what science knows about drugs and brain development, a critique of the politics of drug laws, and some sensible meditations on human compassion and spirituality.

There are lots of ways for students to get to know something about this sphere of life, from on-site fieldtrips, to up-close-and-personal interviews, to classroom conversation. They all work. So does reading Mate’s Realm of Hungry Ghosts. The latter has the advantage of providing readers with a sustained engagement with the subject over the time it takes to read the book, in my view, probably a deeper, more wide-ranging engagement than most other representational and inter-personal forms provide. The book is better than a newspaper column,  magazine article, TV report, or even a documentary film. It’s denser and more intense than a superficial field trip. The book, as the students occasionally say, makes you  think.

I could cite a thousand other instances, from the students’ reading and my own. And while speech may be, as Salutin claims, “the real human specific,” often enough speech is just words, or worse. Books, when they’re good, do something that other forms of engagement don’t do. As a writer friend of mine and I noticed long ago, books are smarter than their authors. That is, the book as a sustained thought or investigation that’s revised, re-shaped, and re-thought in the company of readers, editors, friends, etc., is something more than even inspired speech.

One can say about books, as the cultural critic Edward Said remarked about the novel, it’s “the Western aesthetic form that offers the largest and most complex image of ourselves that we have.” Or, as the philosopher Richard Rorty says in Philosophy as Cultural Politics (2007), “The point of reading a great many books is to become aware of a great number of alternative purposes, and the point of that is to become an autonomous self.”   

So, as Canada’s greatest thinker might have said, “Talk all you want, baby, but then let’s… read.”

Vancouver, January 3, 2010

Stan Persky

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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