Are lovers of literature a dying breed in America?

July 18, 2004|By James Marcus

TO JUDGE from a sobering report issued by the National Endowment for the Arts, we can now add a new animal to the endangered species list: the American reader. Or more specifically, the reader of literature. As a nation, we seem slowly but surely to be throwing overboard such cultural staples as the novel, the short story, poetry and drama.

According to the July 8 report, Americans are deserting these forms in astonishing numbers. To choose just one example, the percentage of literary readers between the ages of 18 and 24 has dropped by 28 percent over the past two decades. Older Americans have notched a similar, if less precipitous, decline.

What are we to make of this massive retreat from literature?

The report correctly fingers a number of key suspects: the Internet, video games and the triumphant march of electronic media into every nook and cranny of American life. This, alas, is hardly news. The eroding power of the written word has been tormenting authors for at least a generation. No, it was the speed of the decline - literature's rapid transformation from hale and hearty citizen to limping invalid - that came as a shock to many. But not to me.

Between 1996 and 2001, I worked at Amazon.com, where I was one of two editors assigned to run the literature area of the online store. This job gave me a disillusioning window into the reading preferences of the company's vast customer base. True, Americans devoured enormous quantities of fiction, and even the occasional work of poetry vaulted its way onto our best-seller list. Still, when it came to overall sales, literature usually ran a distant third to business and religion titles.

Desperately wanting our category to be top dog, we cast our eye abroad, where the prospects looked better. When Amazon prepared to open its French subsidiary in August 2000, we were told that the market there was tilted decisively toward literature. We imagined Proust and Montaigne and Rimbaud flying off the virtual shelves.

Here, too, we were taking a rosy view: Having just now checked the French site's best-seller list, I can confirm that nine out of the top 10 titles are comic books. But the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer seems to be holding steady at No. 18, so perhaps the diminishing allure of literature is a distinctly American problem after all.

That still leaves the big question: Why?

I think a clue can be found in another statistic offered by the NEA report. Even as we've turned away from literature, we as a nation are writing more than ever. Seven percent of all the respondents claimed to have written creative work during the preceding year, which suggests that about 14 million Americans are scribbling away. Presumably at least some of these people are writing novels or plays. Others are taking their inspiration to the Internet, creating blogs or writing customer reviews.

This is unequivocally a good thing. Yet it also makes me wonder whether in the Age of Oprah we've come to lean so heavily on self-disclosure as a supreme virtue that we've grown less interested in what other people have to say. This is less of a good thing. Without a healthy curiosity about the wider world, self-expression can wither into tedious self-regard. And literature, of course, comes not only from life but from other literature. If you can't read, you certainly can't write. Let's pray that it's not too late to repair the reciprocal relationship between the two.

Lest you think the NEA report is entirely a matter of doom and gloom, let me share a final gleam of encouragement. After crunching the numbers, the NEA concluded that 25 million Americans read some quantity of poetry in 2002. This is the sort of statistic that would cause many an American poet to swoon with joy and disbelief. Rimbaud, there may be hope for you after all.

James Marcus is the author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut.

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