The Almighty Word

A few years ago, I found myself on a blind date with an English professor. At some point after the second drink, one of us mentioned a feature in the Times that day about a recent slew of steamy, pulpy young adult novels whose sudden popularity had incurred the wrath of both protective mothers and knuckle-rapping critics.
“But at least the kids are reading,” said my date, raising her glass. “That’s got to count for something.”
Does it?
The gut says yes, the brain isn’t so sure. Both make a compelling case. On the one hand, there’s the cumulative experience of reading, a lifetime of plunging into novels, skimming newspaper articles, browsing wall captions, identifying road signs, and the rest of it; on the other, there’s the temptation to brush all that aside and feign a sort of semiotic relativism: “who are we to say whether certain systems of codification are intrinsically ‘good?'” It’s hard to know which to trust.
I should mention that no one was arguing on behalf of the Y/A books’ literary merit–and let’s assume for the sake of argument they were as crude and morally sketchy as the parents attested–but there was indeed a rallying-cry among the literati for reading as an end in-itself, as though the activity alone possessed some indefinable, self-justifying virtue.
It’s not an absurd claim. Reading does engage and exercise lexical circuits in the brain, and probably improves certain cognitive faculties, however superfluous the content. (When kids stop reading, their IQ scores drop.) Of course, the same argument has been made for video games, that they strengthen hand-to-eye coordination and strategic reasoning, and therefore carry just as much “inherent” value as reading.
The crux of the issue has to do with as “passive” versus “active” stimulation, or at least what is perceived as such.
Many have pointed out, however, that in actuality, there is no such thing as “passive” engagement of any kind. Even perception itself, the neurologists tell us–the apparently simple act of looking or listening–involves an unceasing, multivalent interplay between the sensory information we receive and the cortical nodes that unpack it. On the most basic level, to perceive is to decrypt, and all media–text, images, numbers, sounds–deliver information in coded packages. The question, then, is why value one type of package over another?
Probably the best way out of this numbing debate is to stop justifying our beloved activities and pastimes on the basis of what they supposedly “do for us” and start recognizing why we find them valuable in the first place.
I once attended a lecture given by Don Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect, a popular book which sought to advance the fashionable theory that listening to classical music at a young age improves test scores later in life. I didn’t have much stake in the hypothesis one way or another. (For the record, I’m inclined to think that there probably is a correlation–though not a causal one; a household that happens to value sophisticated music is more likely to provide a cognitively enriched environment for a child to grow up in in the first place.) But what irked me about Campbell’s approach was the idea of prescribing music as a tool of social advancement, as if its sole value lay in how effectively it influenced other, more measurable factors like short-term recall and conceptual organization.
It’s a bit like encouraging your child to play a sport because it ups his chances of getting a scholarship ten years down the line. It certainly could, but far more valuable is the joy the child will have simply playing the sport today.
Yes, music may nudge our “pattern recognition” capacity up by some nominal degree, just as books might enhance our verbal aptitude and sports, our spatial orientation skills, but these are not and should not be the chief reasons why we engage with them. Like so many things that resist quantification–friendship, compassion, beauty–to validate them on the basis of how they affect future performance is to miss the point.
Indeed, each delivery system presents its own suite of rewards, and each are limited by what they alone can offer. Robinson Crusoe cannot compete with “Guitar Hero” on its ground, nor should we expect it to. (Writes Annie Dillard: “The people who read are the people that like literature… I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.”)
The only conceivable value of trashy books is the dubious but not unthinkable possibility that they might go some of the way towards engendering in young people a love of reading as an end in-itself, which in turn might whet the appetite for better books. For many, that’s the only way in. They’ll read Sweet Valley High or Twilight at thirteen, lose their taste for it by fourteen and demand something richer and more challenging at sixteen. Or so the thinking goes.
If the argument applies to one form of entertainment, though, it should apply to all. Why is it that when kids become enraptured by some idiotic program, no one says, “well, at least they’re watching TV?”
The answer is obvious: we don’t expect much from television. Call to mind the act of channel-surfing across a virtual sea of mediocrity–the officious network anchors, the blaring car commercials, the interminable daytime talk shows. It’s no wonder HBO established its high-brow reputation by defining itself in opposition to its own medium.
But is the literary marketplace really all that different? Step into a Barnes & Noble, with its endless shelves of celebrity hagiographies, its window full of diet books by suspiciously photogenic doctors, its rack of movie novelizations, and ask yourself if publishing is a classy industry.
It may be that the reason we’re so quick to defend the Written Word, to pedestalize its power and grandiosity to the detriment of all other media, is that it’s been here the longest. We can chart its evolution from primitive iconography, to ideograms and glyphs, to alphabets and punctuation, up through epic poetry and drama and novels. It’s earned its place as civilization’s posterboy. Where were the Sopranos when Homer, Cicero and Shakespeare were shaping the Western Canon?
This is a prejudice, though. It’s the default position of literary folk to stand by their heritage, even if The Da Vinci Code is its progeny. Like true believers, we’ll come up with ingenious justifications for the innate merit of typographic symbology before accepting that text is just one more delivery system. Which, at the end of the day, it is.
A word about bias. I was brought up to believe there was something wholesome and virtuous about looking things up. Usually when I asked my father, a writer, to define a word I didn’t understand, he’d nod to the American Heritage Dictionary with a slightly punishing look, as if I’d committed a minor sin by not consulting the printed object first. Perhaps he was trying to instill in me a respect for the written language, or maybe he just didn’t want me pestering him, but as a result I’ve carried this heavy-handed association with dictionaries all these years. To this day, I feel just a little bit guilty every time I dial up a word on my desktop widget instead of getting out of my chair and flipping through the hefty tome on the other side of the room. Is there really some secret value to be found in manually turning pages and scanning for particular words? Other than sharpening your ability to recall the letters of the alphabet, there isn’t much to be said for it as an activity. (Though the expert dictionary reader, Ammon Shea, might disagree.) And yet two decades later I can still sense the weight of tradition in the memory of my dad’s disapproving glance.
This is what I mean by “prejudice.” For better or worse, we all have our hard-wired associations–some of us capitulate to them and others rebel against them–but there they are. For a lot of people, the appearance of black & white film alone might signify sophistication. Something about the scratchy, silvery tint, its time-capsuled resistance to contemporary fashions, prompts an automatic sense of reverence, regardless of how many cinematic duds the studios churned out before Technicolor.
Do we do the same for the Written Word? Do we grant it Goldmember status out of respect for its breadth and longevity?
The truth is that, while all delivery systems have particular histories and particular limitations, they are equally capable of delivering meaningful content, just as all cuisine has its delicacies and its slop, its caviar and its gruel, each bound to their own range of flavors and textures. Snobbery, after all, is not measured by a “well-cultivated” palette or a table-pounding demand for “quality,” but by a deliberate unwillingness to consider that quality takes many forms and often abides unfamiliar standards.
What kids actually need, what we all need, are higher standards across the board. Not more books but better books; not fewer movies or comics or pop songs, but fewer bad ones. This worthier goal won’t be achieved by blandly extolling the virtues of one medium or lambasting another, but by developing a stronger, richer, more vibrant culture all around.
That I’ll drink to.

Alex Rose is a co-founding editor of Hotel St. George Press and the author of The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales. His work has appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, Ploughshares and Fantasy Magazine. His story, “Ostracon,” will be included in the 2009 edition of Best American Short Stories.

12 thoughts on “The Almighty Word

  1. Yes, I have a name

    In some very rare occasions you read something, that *really* changes the way you think. Going through Alex’s ideas was one of them. So I thank you.
    I’ll drink to this.

  2. watzisscreenname

    It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to read good writing that isn’t far too philosophical to be understood or too academic such that I’d think someone’s been weaseling.
    Thanks for the piece, Alex; it reminded me of an old habit I had somehow grew to dislike because it got me nowhere.
    And now I think:
    I shall always enjoy good writing, but stop short of deciding what is “canonical” or “better”. Reading as such, is a hobby—at least I’m reading, that ought to count for something. I’ll leave “quality” to the experts or at least, the cultish fan clubs.

  3. Chris Meade

    I thoroughly agree with you and get increasingly infuriated by the lazy assumptions that abound about the superiority of book reeading over the supposed passivity of other kinds of cultural engagement.

  4. barbara fister

    A hundred years ago all fiction was considered trash, an opiate that stunted the brain. More recently, the NEA decided all fiction was ennobling, unless it was online in which case it wasn’t. But there’s also research from Catherine Sheldrick Ross and her graduate students at Western Ontario who have talked to avid readers about what they get out of reading – even “trashy” books (whatever that means) – and clearly there’s a lot of benefit to them, not because it might lead them to read Faulkner or philosophy, but because people find joy, affirmation, a sense that they are not alone or freaks in the world because they encounter people like them in books, because they feel freed from the boundaries of their lives. There’s also some research that suggests those who read fiction are able to demonstrate greater empathy than those who don’t, which I bumped into at
    I agree that it’s silly to say reading is always good, just as it’s silly to say watching television is always bad. But I have some problems with the idea that only reading books with literary merit determined by someone other than the reader is a worthwhile activity. The agency involved in developing and pursuing one’s own taste in reading matter is an important part of the reading experience, and given the numbers of books published annually, there’s a lot of room to develop that individual taste.

  5. Natalie Michelson

    “They’ll read Sweet Valley High or Twilight at thirteen, lose their taste for it by fourteen and demand something richer and more challenging at sixteen. Or so the thinking goes.”
    Haha. I’m not sure about that. Judging by book sale statistics, the more probable case is that they will read Twilight at thirteen and will advance to the richer and more challenging text contained in bestselling violent, sexy paperback thrillers.
    Actually, I’m still personally undecided about how I feel about this idea that there is something inherently valuable about reading versus receiving the same information via some other medium. Arguably, and I think it was Neil Postman that wrote something like this: the medium shapes the message. And even assuming you could get the same idea across through written words or through pictures, the medium through which you receive the message will shape how you interpret, respond or spread it. Every medium has its own established “unofficial terms of use” and expectations from the outcome of utilizing it.
    A book, for instance, is basically a one-way steam of information. The expectation is that you receive a fairly long and densely communicated idea and are left to interpret it for what the author originally intended and then digest it… maybe responding in some form to the author if you feel particularly impassioned. Additionally, when reading, the speed of processing is not constant (at least not for me :P). I constantly and maybe a little bit erratically slow down at certain parts, reread others and so on.
    Hearing the same thing on an audio track, there is inherently less guesswork at the tone and emotion the author has about what they are talking about. This strips away some of the interpretation process so that the “information interpretation process” is more efficient as far as understanding the original intent of the author’s words is concerned. That said, I think this increased efficiency also takes away from what I personally feel is a very valuable part of learning and idea development: the misinterpreting or reinterpreting of original ideas.
    Also, and this point might be more debatable but I believe it personally (from experience in a number of classes ;), because reading forces a more active role on the receiver’s end in terms of interpreting what they are exposed to, it also makes it more evident and obvious when they are unclear about a concept.

  6. watzisscreenname

    Well, if we had to go into Benedict Anderson and intellectualise history, we wouldn’t have much time for reading. 🙂
    That said, I was brought up on the English canon, because I studied English Literature for my O-Levels.

  7. Bex

    Come on, ‘pedestalize’…The written word has had a rocky time anyway. It maybe ancient, but until last century or so, it was not widespread. If you wanted a story told you asked your grandparents, or priest, or elder, or shaman, who used their memories and then embellished it. Also, some may worship books, but they too have had a dicey time. The only reason some of Homer’s work survived at all as it was found in a cow shed. We are lucky to have as much of Shakespeare’s works as we do. Copyist monks were known to recycle manuscripts, and then keep them hidden as they were not for the general population, in fact some books had locks on them.
    Then there are some who have questioned the benefits of reading. I highly recommend The Bugbear of Literacy by AK Coomerswamy, which was a crucial text during my degree.
    Apart of that, what has survived of the literary world is not necessarily the best, or the most popular works. Survival does not indicate quality, popularity does not ensure survival for texts. Texts of profound quality and depth have been lost, while other things have survived. So these are my questions of the new media – what should be preserved, and who should judge? Should digital copies of Sweet Valley High be preserved as a cultural relic? Should as much be preserved and captured regardless of quality, as a historical exercise, rather than a literary one? Should it be random? Should we care if suddenly every copy of Harry Potter is lost?

  8. watzisscreenname


    Haha. I’m not sure about that. Judging by book sale statistics, the more probable case is that they will read Twilight at thirteen and will advance to the richer and more challenging text contained in bestselling violent, sexy paperback thrillers.

    That’s called unadventurous. Which, isn’t the London I know.

    Should digital copies of Sweet Valley High be preserved as a cultural relic?

    Always. You imagined killing your Classics department at Oxford?

  9. Brutus

    It was Marshall McLuhan who said “the medium is the message,” which was later developed by Neil Postman (among others). Apparently, though, their insights and analysis are lost on folks who believe that all media are equivalent as simple delivery systems of information and culture. The inability to recognize that different media possess different imperatives and therefore cultivate (or inculcate) different values is perilous. It’s a form of radical relativism, which frankly doesn’t serve us, though it’s quite common in the postmodern era.
    Think of it this way: the mind and body can be trained for many different things. Does a professional athlete or fighter pilot, whose principal faculties are body control and eye-hand coordination, really need to be fully literate (as opposed to functionally illiterate)? Maybe not, since tasks requiring literacy can be fobbed onto various helpers (coaches, computers, etc.). But accepting such specialists, who jettison multifaceted aspects of personal development, diminishes their humanity and reconstitutes them as mere functions rather than individuals capable of respectable thought, feeling, and action. Generalized as the inability to read deeply and insightfully, and worse, unable to think rationally, we already have a sizeable population whose lack of empathy and foresight, among other things, opens the door to considerable barbarity and susceptibility to manipulation. What a world that is shaping up to be.

  10. Jake

    I’ve heard Alex’s argument—Philip Pullman has made the same one in various places—and the anonymous English professor’s argument (which I dubbed the Gateway drug argument) and tend to agree with the latter in part because that better represents my own trajectory, which goes from kids’ books to loads of pulpy SF and fantasy to literature as a whole.
    Furthermore, I probably imbibed something useful from all that SF and fantasy (about plots, about how those works tend to function in a myth-critic way, and even vocabulary) even if I wasn’t ready to dive into Shakespeare at the time.

  11. Sarah

    Hello! I like your blog very much. Thank you for considering the future of the book!
    I’d like to consider this thought a bit more:

    But is the literary marketplace really all that different?

    No, it’s not all that different, is it? literature has always responded to culture, but that’s not necessarily the problem. (If anything it’s the solution.) But if that were the problem then we’d be sorry elitists getting angry when a book we like becomes popular.
    I think the particular issue with steamy and pulpy novels is that a hypersexualized culture like ours is embracing the media’s standards about what is appropriate for young readers at the expense of literary content. Walking down the YA Lit aisle at Barnes & Noble nowadays is like walking down the magazine rack or the romance section or turning on ‘Gossip Girl.’ It’s indistinguishable from the message of the media and that’s what makes me think of such books as constituting ‘not reading.’ After all, the nature of steamy novels doesn’t seem to instill a love of reading, but a love of thrills.
    It may be true that it comes down to personal taste, and there will and always have been ‘Twilights,’ but does that mean that they should be encouraged? Younger kids won’t know what their personal taste is unless they try to deviate from the norm.
    I guess it comes down to what one thinks the point of literature is, like you said. What do we gain in the act of reading? Why is a book considered ‘good’? What are its merits? Language, instruction, theme, morality, tenderness? I don’t know. But whatever the standards, heck yes to higher ones.

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