Still Reading

Still Reading

Why_readWhy read? In reading circles it seems to be a subject of debate. University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmunson has written a book of the same title, which was published in September. In August, I posted excerpts from the book printed in an essay by Prof. Edmunson in the New York Times magazine. Another portion from the book appears on the Web site of Poets & Writers. The subject of this portion: the nature of education today as “all entertainment, all the time.”

“More and more, we Americans like to watch (and not to do),” writes Edmunson. “In fact watching is our ultimate addiction. My students were the progeny of two hundred available cable channels and omnipresent Blockbuster outlets. They grew up with their noses pressed against the window of that second spectral world that spins parallel to our own, the World Wide Web. There they met life at second or third hand, peering eagerly, taking in the passing show, but staying remote, apparently untouched by it. So conditioned, they found it almost natural to come at the rest of life with a sense of aristocratic expectation: “What have you to show me that I haven’t yet seen?””

Edmunson continues about the current media culture: “Early on, I had been a reader of Marshall McLuhan, and I was reminded of his hypothesis that the media on which we as a culture have become dependent are themselves cool. TV, which seemed on the point of demise, so absurd had it become to the culture of the late sixties, rules again. To disdain TV now is bad form; it signifies that you take yourself far too seriously. TV is a tranquilizing medium, a soporific, inducing in its devotees a light narcosis. It reduces anxiety, steadies and quiets the nerves. But also deadens. Like every narcotic, it will be consumed in certain doses, produce something like a hangover, the habitual watchers’ irritable languor that persists after the TV is off. It’s been said that the illusion of knowing and control that heroin engenders isn’t entirely unlike the TV consumer’s habitual smug-torpor, and that seems about right.

“Those who appeal most on TV over the long haul are low-key and nonassertive. Enthusiasm quickly looks absurd. The form of character that’s most ingratiating on the tube, that’s most in tune with the medium itself, is laid-back, tranquil, self-contained, and self-assured. The news anchor, the talk-show host, the announcer, the late-night favorite—all are prone to display a sure sense of human nature, avoidance of illusion, reliance on timing and strategy rather than on aggressiveness or inspiration. With such figures, the viewer is invited to identify. On what’s called reality TV, on game shows, quiz shows, inane contests, we see people behaving absurdly, outraging the cool medium with their firework personalities. Against such excess the audience defines itself as wordly, laid-back, and wise.

“Is there also a financial side to the culture of cool? I believed that I saw as much. A cool youth culture is a marketing bonanza for producers of right products, who do all they can to enlarge that culture and keep it humming. The Internet, TV, and magazines teem with what I came to think of as persona ads, ads for Nikes and Reeboks, and Jeeps and Blazers that don’t so much endorse the powers of the product per se as show you what sort of person you’ll inevitably become once you’ve acquired it. The Jeep ad that featured hip outdoorsy kids flinging a Frisbee from mountain top to mountaintop wasn’t so much about what Jeeps can do as it was about the kind of people who own them: vast, beautiful creatures, with godlike prowess and childlike tastes. Buy a Jeep and be one with them. The ad by itself is of little consequence, but expand its message exponentially and you have the central thrust of postmillennial consumer culture: buy in order to be. Watch (coolly) so as to learn how to be worthy of being watched (while being cool).”

And so, argues Edmunson, such a culture affects campus life as well. I remember as much years ago, when I felt defensive in justifying my college major (English) at parties. As far as introductions go, a college major wasn’t the answer to the question ‘who are you?’ Instead, you could see it in your fellow students’ faces: What are you going to do with that?

“In the current university environment, I saw, there was only one form of knowledge that was generally acceptable. And that was knowledge that allowed you to keep your cool,” he writes. “It was fine to major in economics or political science or sociology, for there you could acquire ways of knowing that didn’t compel you to reveal and risk yourself. There you could stay detached. And—what was at least as important—you could acquire skills that would stand you in good financial stead later in life. You could use your educations to make yourself rich. All of the disciples that did not traduce the canons of cool were thriving. It sometimes seemed that everyone of my first-year advisees wanted to major in economics, even when they had no independent interest in the subject. They’d never read an economics book, had no attraction to the business pages of the Times. They wanted economics because word had it that econ was the major that made you look best to Wall Street and the investment banks. “We like economics majors,” an investment banking recruiter reportedly said, “because they’re people who’re willing to sacrifice their educations to the interest of their careers.”