Literacy, RIP

This morning I walked with Violeta along Lopez Cotilla through the used-book district. I leave shortly for ten days in Ecuador and wanted something to read on the trip. In the small English section of one stall I found a serviceable trove: Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills and Soldiers Three, the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ernest Van Den Haag’s The Jewish Mystique, and Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. These set me back by twenty-two dollars.

Any reader of my age and reasonable intelligence might have bought the same books. None of them is demanding. I had read the Kipling before high school, and Berlin Diary in high school, but neither since. Yes, Shirer requires a sophisticated vocabulary, a first-name familiarity with sentences of more than one clause, and an attention span measured in units greater than milliseconds. In aggregate these were once known as “being able to read." They were expected of the moderately cultured.

Anyone familiar with today’s young must be painfully aware that few can, or would, read these books. For one thing, they are too impatient, perhaps having been shaped by the flick-flick-flick of television to the point that lengthy concentration is beyond them. For another, they lack the indefinable but crucial background that comes of having read hundreds of books. You learn to read fluently by reading much. You learn to appreciate a short story by having read short stories. They haven’t.

And finally, they don’t know English. They don’t know what an indirect object is, or the subjunctive, or why. They do not know that a word that looks vaguely like another may mean something quite different, or that the finer shades of meaning have their uses. They do not know that sentences have structure, and that there is a reason for it. Without these bits of understanding they cannot enjoy, or even notice, the language in which a story is told.

Worse, they have been taught that careful literacy is not democratic, and that the value of a book springs from the ethnicity of the author. I am aware of no other civilization that has regarded benightedness with irredentist longing.

If I were to make a list of the best books I have read, and would recommend to adults and children alike, I would begin with Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. It would not be because I am in arrested development, though I may be. It would be because the English is masterly, the limning of a magical world adroit, and Shepherd’s drawings exquisite. But to enjoy them you need to appreciate the language (and not be too full of yourself).

I would follow Pooh with The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Stalky and Company and both Jungle Books, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and The Lord of the Rings. At this point we reach the realm of purely adult books, of which there are many thousands of excellent examples, almost none of them written recently. The young who have read the books suggested in the foregoing, and gorged indiscriminately on whatever the library offers, will be ready for other fare.

Instead they will watch the Disney versions – grinning, shallow, degraded, and stupid.

We have lost so much. When was the last time a short story appeared in a magazine? Perhaps Harper’s or the Atlantic prints one from time to time. I don’t know. The writing in these became so tedious that I stopped reading them. Yet once short stories were everywhere, sparkling, varied, idiosyncratic and sometimes eccentric, crafted by writers who knew what they were doing. And they were read by readers who knew what they were doing. Gone. Both. Or going, at any rate.

Poetry? Once it was vastly enjoyed by cultivated people who knew how to read it. Of course it was produced by people who knew how to write it. Today there is almost nothing, and what there is, shouldn’t be. How is it that the United States, a nation of three hundred million people, with far more avenues to learning than existed in 1600 – cannot belch up a single Edmund Spenser? The entire nation is literarily inferior to thirty men in the reeking, disease-ridden nightmare that was Elizabeth’s London. How is this?

America was not always so. I just ordered a collection of Dorothy Parker’s poetry and short stories, chiefly for the verse. Critics say that she hasn’t “worn well." I suspect that the explanation is otherwise, that critics are idiots. This is always a good bet. She can make the language jump through hoops, say exactly what she wants to say crisply and originally. (“What fresh hell is this?")


Great literature Nightlife isn’t. It is however light, amusing, imaginative, unpretentious, and written by a writer—an uncommon circumstance these days. He never lapses into the clanking solecisms that many professors today never lapse out of. He uses the language instead of walking over it. I can read him without wanting to kill something. It is froth, but good froth. This we almost no longer have.

Is there something about modern life that makes impossible both writing and reading beyond the level one associates with drug dealers? The same thing seems to be happening in the other English-speaking countries. The British once wrote graceful and polished prose, but they are barely better than Americans now. Is it that both countries have shifted from aristocratic to proletarian ideals? That no esthetic enterprise can survive the imposition of vulgarity by television?

My view is that the best have at last become afraid of the worst, have lost all confidence in themselves. A couple of times in Smith’s novels, a character misuses a word, whereupon another corrects him. I recall that such minor policing was common in the Fifties. The civilized seemed to regard English as public property that the well-bred should treat with respect.

Can you imagine today saying to someone, “Lying down, not laying down"? The consequence would be an explosion of anger in which all about would agree that such elitism was most foully reprehensible. Onward, upward, and back into the trees.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.