19th Century Literature

Nat Case ncase at hedbergmaps.com
Mon Jul 30 20:53:15 EDT 2001

>Frankly, I find cold hard stats less satisfying than a sense of things,
>too.  It's just that my sense of things is counter to yours (and, well,
>apparently a lot of people on the list).  When two people disagree with
>their sense of things, then it's usually up to cold hard facts to set
>them straight.  Which is kind of how the topic got started--because I
>disagreed with the original statement of the popularity of Victorian
>works in general and we didn't know any sales figures or studies that
>would set me straight.

I personally find literacy rates suspect, because there is such a 
range of what constitutes literacy, and such a variety of variables 
that have nothing to do with Decline of Civilization. For instance:

1. Changing patterns of immigration affect the number of kids who are 
coming into school (A) from English-speaking families, and (B) from 
reading families in any language. Because parental patterns are so 
important, this effect can last one or two generations.

2. Reading of literature as a subset of the reading population is 
hard to determine largely because of the difficulty of pinning down 
literature. In this group we may say that readers of Danielle Steele 
don't count as readers of literature, but there are those who would 
say that my reading load, which is heavy on children's books, betrays 
a weakness of character.

3. People decry the loss of readership of serious magazines and 
newspapers, but first, how many subscribers of serious newspapers 
like the New York Times subscribed because the alternatives like USA 
Today weren't available, and skimmed about the same amount of 
information from them, and how many of the old subscribers now watch 
extended news shows or cable news and listen to National Public Radio 
or BBC Radio 4 or whatever. There may be a loss of reading, but I 
find it hard to accept that the written word is without question The 
Way to absorb news and analysis.

4. The "Buy it so you can pretend to have read it" phenomenon Jacob 
describes has been with us forever (Meredith Wilson's THE MUSIC MAN, 
set in 1890s Iowa, has some my favorite examples). If anything, my 
experience (and Jacob's apparently differs) tells me educated people 
are becoming less embarrassed to talk about what they actually read, 
and to discuss formerly ghettoized literatures (e.g. comics, fantasy, 
erotica) in a serious way. The result has been less pretense (OK, 
pretense in a different direction), and perhaps less pretending to 
have read and appreciated older "classics."

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