Posted by: Nathan | May 9, 2006

The Death of the Common Reader?

Literature is in trouble. The threat is not a lack of funding, a dearth of good works, or a void of talent, it is a public saturated with other pastimes. It is apathy. The most profound poems and most captivating novels are completely powerless to change a community who won’t read. The study of literature and even the perusal of books that are considered to be “heavy” is now relegated almost solely to the Academy; in other words, the books and works that have shaped Western culture (and other cultures) are now only known by a select few.

The great irony is that there are more literate people in the world today than ever before, yet I would estimate that fewer of them read on a regular basis. The causes are myriad:

Distractions abound: People have far more things to take up their free time now than ever before. TV, excercising, movies, video games, music, travel, are just a beginning of things that people have the option of doing, though I think the trio of TV, movies, and video games are the most damaging to reading time. They’re fun and they’re easy–passive entertainment. Reading literature is almost the polar opposite: it forces to you actively engage a text, challenges your thoughts and worldviews, and takes time and effort.

Postmodernism: It’s great fun to blame Postmodernism (Pomo) for everything that is wrong (I always enjoy it), but it’s not always accurate to do so. What I reference here is Pomo’s undermining of language and inherent meaning. If the literary scholars are saying that a text has no discernible meaning (or maybe has relative meaning) then what shall a layperson think? Segue…

Most people think they can’t understand it: I’ve often heard (and hear of) friends or relatives of literature students who won’t read anything even slightly literary because they are convinced they won’t understand it. The language is too old or too heightened. It’s too confusing. It’s not laid out. This self-doubt is preventing these individuals from even trying to read something scholarly when in actuality a lot of Literature is pretty easy to access (hint: don’t start with Ulysses), and the only way readers learn to interpret the more difficult works is to read them. If you don’t get it all, that’s okay; Cliff Notes exist for a reason.

Apathy: This is most damaging and most powerful of the causes. A friend told me that a recent study found that 80% of people don’t question life or think about existence. Whether or not this is an accurate estimate, it does explain why a lot of people don’t want to engage Hemingway, Dostoevsky, or even Austin: they don’t want to think.

Is there anything to be done? Maybe we need better literature? The existing literature is already superb if you know where to look. Better marketing? I cringe at that idea. Is there a way to get people to care more about literature without a cultural overhaul?

Samuel Johnson is renowned for his stance that the common reader is the primary judge of literary merit; if a work or author doesn’t please the average citizen, he argued, then it is not good. I’m afraid Dr. Johnson’s idea applied to this century would result in either the proliferation of poor books or the slow death of literature, which I’m not sure we’re avoiding anyway. The common reader now is non-existent in my view, or if squi* exists, squi reads The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter. I like both of those titles, but they are brain candy–they don’t require one to think at all. Profound meaning is not to be had by perusing these novels and their ilk.

I do not wish to become a curmudgeon, nor do I think literature needs an even more erudite reputuation than it already commands. I’m happy that people still read some things, I simply seek a means to reacquaint the common reader with works that will challenge their mindset or shift their worldview a little. Though I do no admit defeat outrightly, I struggle to invent a means of increasing the audience of literature without compromising its content. It’s a problem to which I have no solution, though I will combat it in any way I can.

*”squi” is my non-gender-specific pronoun replacing “he or she” or the dreaded “s/he”


  1. VERY well-written post. You are going into the right profession. You can combat this apathy, et. al. by a passion for literature, which you clearly exude. The best teachers/professors are ones who believe in the inherent importance of their subject matter, and make a student believe the same. As a critique, I would offer that it might be helpful to define what you understand ‘literature’ to mean. For some people, JK Rowling, Dan Brown, and Stephen King are literature. For others, these authors represent only a shadow of what ‘literature’ actually is. I would also posit that people still read quite a bit, but that they only read what they are interested in. This is to the great detriment of liberal (in the classical sense of the word) education, but specialized, interest-driven reading can be viewed as another proximate cause. Also, in a culture driven by instant gratification (in tandem with distraction), a tome of similar size and breadth to Dostoyevsky or Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ is unappealing. Thought-provoking and well-written. Perhaps blogs will someday be considered ‘literature.’ That, I fear, would be the true death of ‘literature.’

  2. I clearly to need to define “literature.” As I use it in this post and as I generally use it, I mean something more than just a written text that many enjoy, literature for me is a collection of works that contribute to, describe, or define something about life in a profound yet enjoyable way. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Gracias, senor.

  4. I’m sure you were thinking of me while you wrote your post. Maybe one of these days I will start to read something, probably not literature by your definition. Lord of the Rings here I come.

  5. YES!! Lord of the Rings is literature! It just hasn’t been around long enough to earn the proper recognition. You will love it. And NO, i wasn’t thinking of you when writing this post. 😉

  6. Would you assign the label of literature to ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’?

  7. Also, (sorry for the flood of comments) what place, if any, do you think multiculturalism has in the decline of literature?

  8. Ah, I always enjoy a deluge of comments. Pertaining to Narnia, I believe I would classify it as literature, but I’m sure a non-Christian would.
    As for Multiculturalism, I’m of two minds about it as it relates to the Canon. I know that there is a lot of great literature out there by peoples of other cultures, histories, etc., and I think we should acknowledge that. However, whenever we do that, we have to cut something, and what is cut usually is really good albeit written by a white, dead guy. There is a lot of white, dead guy lit that is amazing and shouldn’t be tossed away due to reverse racism (for that’s what it is); all lit should be judged for its merits. I also think we shouldn’t be shamed to push forward literature (or anything really) that is a huge part of Western Culture. We should teach our students who they are, where they came from ideologically, and let them go from there. That said, I like foreign lit a lot and want to read more of it.

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