Recovered from the Wayback Machine.
Jonathon references an article by Judith Shulevitz about the One Book, One City program — an effort to foster interest in reading and communal togetherness by assigning a book to a community with encouragement to “…stop others on the sidewalk to chat informally about the book, and to attend one of the many planned events around town.”
In her article, Shulevitz argues that …literature does not make us or our society better as a refutation of the premise behind the program.
I agree completely with Shulevitz — literature doesn’t make ‘society’ better. Society is a mob on the perpetual edge of riot and anarchy saved only by laws enacted to ensure the survival of the maximum number of those most compliant. Society is nothing more than a breeding ground of mediocrity.
Damn that was that fun to write! I love nothing more than to respond in my most over-the-top manner to even the simplest written statement, and Shulevitz’s assumptions are anything but simple. Brain cells and tapping fingers, be thy most wicked selves.
I wrote in the comments attached to Jonathon’s posting (corrected for usual Bb typos):
Reading is probably our most important expression of individuality. What we read, when, and how we respond to what we read is a process that begins within our minds as we pursue the word across the page. Even when we attend a public reading, the words are thrown out into the audience — it’s up to the individual to determine how to catch them, play with them.
To throw all of this into a communal improvement exercise? Bah!
Dorothea argues most eloquently in reply by saying:
Problem two is Burningbird’s assumption (certainly a reasonable reading of Shulevitz) that reading is always and inevitably an individual action. Perhaps. But discussing reading is social. Choosing books is *very* social; I get most of my book recommendations from people, not bibliographies. Reading aloud is social. Surely these activities are good-social, worth pursuing? But Shulevitz is willing to trash them.
I don’t approve. I can’t. I had rather see people read and talk and read and talk some more.
I believe that Dorothea and I are in agreement, about reading if not about article or the One City, One Book program.
There is a social aspect to reading — receiving recommendations from friends and admired strangers as well as the interaction of people discussing a work they either loath or love. And books can make a better person hence there is a benefit, indirectly, to society.
(However, I have found that it is usually only an open mind that hears the message of the material; the material doesn’t necessarily create new pathways as much as it uses existing ones in new ways.)
Outside of the requirements of academia, though, the action of seeking a book, making the choice, and opening and reading the book is based on an individual’s interest and inclination. Once read, it is the individual who them must decide whether they loath or love the work enough to discuss it with others.
The most interesting discussions about a creative work — book or article, photograph or painting — occur in a group made of people with strongly individual views of the work. The participation that formed in Jonathon’s comments related to the Shulevitz article is an example of such a group.
As for One City, One Book: I can think of nothing more off putting than to be walking down the street, thoughts engaged elsewhere and to be stopped and asked my opinion of “Jim the Boy”. Or to be given the impression that it’s my civic responsibility to read “Jim the Boy” and to attend community meetings to discuss it.
Shades of “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451”! Even though the latter is based on book burning, the premise really is on group thinking. One City, One Book — might as well call it “groupthink” and be done with it.
As much as I love books and as much as I love to read, I can’t agree with using a combination of hip marketing and subtle group coercion to attempt to engender an appreciation of either books or community in others.