|The stacks at Prospero's Books|
Photo by Bob Sommer
This was former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser responding to the question of what advice he would offer aspiring poets.
He sat onstage in a wingback chair following a reading at the University of Kansas, looking somewhat as if he was about to introduce Masterpiece Theater. He’s a congenial man with thick hands and, I discovered later, a surprisingly firm grip. His demeanor is easy and calm, like his poems, but also like his poems, there was a sharpness and clarity in his comments, and in this one, you could even say, a subtle barb. He conducts many writing workshops, so doubtless he had good reason for thinking aspiring poets needed to be told to read, which, apparently, some do.
Consider another instance.
A provocative column in The Huffington Post last summer by literary critic Anis Shivani, entitled “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers,” inspired over 1,700 comments.(1) Carrion eaters swarmed. Fresh carcasses littered the digital Serengeti plains. Shivani’s prey included such major literary figures as John Ashbery, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Tan. His critical judgments don’t much concern us here, but the comments posted by people who admit to having little or no acquaintance with these writers do.
Here’s an unvarnished, unedited sampling:
I've only heard of two, though I never read them.
So happy to say I haven't read anything from these writers, not even heard of them, ever. Which makes me wonder, how come they are they overrated?
Haven't read any of these writers but love the 'hit-job' style of the article.
Can`t judge, I have not read most of them, Jhumpa I don`t read, she is good but always so sad and depressing , I don`t need that. We don`t need a fiction to be sad and depressed …
Never heard of any of them.
Never heard of any of these writers except Amy Tan (who I've not read), but then, I don't travel in those circles.
I don't read much, I admit. But I have read Jhumpa Lahiri's books―all of them and must ask who is Shivani to pass judgment on her ?
Never heard of any of them or any of their books.
The only one I've heard of is Amy Tan.
Funny, I've never heard of any of these people, and I read novels every day.
I have never read any of these writers, well, one, Amy Tan many years ago and was not terribly impressed—now, thanks to your entertaining article I have no intention or desire to read any of them.When I was in college, not having done the reading was generally a good reason to keep your mouth shut in class. You’d also slouch low to avoid the professor’s gaze. But here, well … whatever. Several commentors simply announce, without gloss, that they’ve never heard of these writers, as if this free-standing fact had significance: Never heard of them so they can’t matter. A couple liked Shivani’s snarky style, his “hit job,” as one put it. What’s more entertaining than malice? Well, public executions maybe. None of these people, nor many others besides, wonder or care if the body of work by these writers deserves more scrutiny than Shivani’s dismissive blurbs. Similar remarks fill the numbing forty-odd pages that follow the article. Some commentors are happy to accept Shivani’s judgment rather than read the books themselves. Shivani may be right or he may not. They’ll never know.
How little are we reading if aspiring poets need to be told to read and bloggers chattering about books don’t connect reading them with chattering about them? And importantly, what are the political and social implications of America’s decline in reading? It’s not much of a leap to suggest that a country whose reading is mostly limited to tweets, text messages, blogs, and snippets of news or sports or celebrity gossip will find itself immobilized, as we seem to be, in the face of great challenges like climate change, poverty, and unending war―or that it will even recognize their magnitude. In past times, apocalyptic events from the Black Plague to the Holocaust may have given many good reason to believe that the end of civilization itself was upon them, but our new millennium has arrived with a clock ticking. Ignorance, stupidity, and superstition are indeed real threats to civilization and the natural world.
Climate scientists have been warning for decades that unless we drastically curtail greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide and methane, catastrophic change on a global scale is imminent. By the end of this century oceans levels could rise as much as three meters; coastlines will be reshaped; ocean acidification will increase; food supplies will dwindle; weather patterns will become increasingly violent; drought will consume large areas of the planet due to the disappearance of glaciers.
The success of the human species over the past ten thousand years has come at a large cost. The natural world has been plundered; thousands of species have gone extinct; forests have disappeared―all servicing our requirements for fuel, living space, and agriculture. The end of the century may seem far off, but so did 2011 to those who were alive when World War I ended and Albert Einstein won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some of them still are.
Species adaptation occurs in eons, not ninety years. Animal and plant life will continue to disappear even if we act now. Environmental writer Bill McKibben describes the consequences of our inertia this way:
… chemistry and physics work. We don't just live in a suburb, or in a free-market democracy; we live on an earth that has certain rules. Physics and chemistry don't care what John Boehner thinks, they're unmoved by what will make Barack Obama's re-election easier. More carbon means more heat means more trouble―and the trouble has barely begun. So far we've raised the temperature of the planet about a degree, which has been enough to melt the Arctic. The consensus prediction for the century is that without dramatic action to stem the use of fossil fuel―far more quickly than is politically or economically convenient―we'll see temperatures climb five degrees this century. Given that one degree melts the Arctic, just how lucky are we feeling? (3)Our ability to respond to this challenge has been further crippled by two exhaustive and expensive wars, unprecedented budget deficits, unemployment numbers that mask the true unemployment of millions of workers, and a willful denial that some of these realities even exist.
Can a society that does not value reading undertake such challenges? The question may seem superfluous. All that calamity at hand, and I’m worried about what’s on your nightstand!? A reductionist response would say just that. Such cant from bloggers and talk-radio shock jocks resonates easily in our imaginations because it surrounds us. In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman describes how jettisoning reading and exchanging it for various entertainment media has changed our ability to sustain ideas of any complexity, or even to think they matter.
Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; and abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. (4)Delayed response? This was published over twenty-five years ago. Twitter makes that notion laughable. But consider how much energy is wasted re-litigating arguments that are settled―how many letters appear in newspaper editorial pages or comments at news blogs every day claiming such startling insights as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is just a theory or global warming isn’t real because we had a lot of snow this winter. For that matter, how many professional columnists and pundits and even school board members make those same claims? Would such ignorance have the political clout it does in a nation that valued its literature, or demanded intellectual rigor in its discourse, or developed the imaginative and critical and language skills necessary to work through complex problems like climate change? The question of how much and how well we read quickly takes on political overtones―indeed it becomes practical and utilitarian. How can we expect to survive without the tools to help us understand our world and ourselves?
There is nothing new in the argument that language development is interwoven with critical and imaginative thinking ability, or that reading and literature play important roles in that process. But even among many who accept that premise, there’s a tendency to believe that the reading of challenging literary works is something to be set aside once the diploma is in hand, and for a majority, even well before that. Thomas Jefferson notably commented (and not on any blog), “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” (5)
Literature is not a source of national pride to Americans. Name recognition for poets and writers pales before that of sports and movie celebrities. As Chris Hedges writes in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, “in American society our gods are celebrities.” (6) Poets have no ranking in that sphere. Entertainment and spectacle have displaced engagement and thought while simultaneously depriving viewers of the necessary language and thinking skills even to distinguish reality from fantasy. Writes Hedges:
Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we are bombarded with the cant and spectacle pumped out over the airwaves or over computer screens by highly-paid pundits, corporate advertisers, talk-show hosts, and gossip-fueled entertainment networks. And a culture dominated by images and slogans seduces those who are functionally literate but who make the choice not to read. (7)The American writer with the most name recognition, and with whom we most identify our national character, Mark Twain, was not educated beyond grade school himself and based much of his humor on undercutting the pretensions of those who were formally educated. He is often cited for the memorable quote, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” It is a notion that appeals to us―school just messes up the real learning of life experience. Unfortunately for the many who live by Twain’s dictum, he didn’t say it. That remark has never been verified as authentic, and while his humor may be popularly regarded as attacking the benefits of education, it rather focused with laser-like precision on the hypocrisy of parading learning as a means of class distinction, as characters like the Duke and King in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrate. (Coincidentally, this very book is under assault once again, now with an effort to strip the word “nigger” from its pages and substitute the word “slave”―an effort that can only be explained by the lack of ironic sensibility and historical perspective that comes from limited exposure to literature.) In “The United States of Lyncherdom,” Twain’s 1901 essay in response to a lynching in Missouri, he did write, “…the world will not stop and think―it never does, it is not its way; its way is to generalize from a single sample.” (8) Who knew he was watching Fox News back then?
For most Americans, literature is an ever-shrinking classroom requirement, a chore, an appendage, not part of the fabric of life. Moby Dick is onerous, Dickinson’s poems a faint high school memory for some, non-existent for many. Stop anyone on the street and ask who the current Poet Laureate is―or even to name one past Poet Laureate, or even to name one major contemporary poet, laureate or not, and the result is predictable. (W.S. Merwin is the current Poet Laureate.) Literature is largely something writers do―for other writers. Who besides writers and MFA candidates in creative writing programs make up the readership of most literary magazines, hard copy or digital? Literary magazines are almost nonexistent in most bookstores, while literature takes up only a small corner. Non-book items fill much of the floor space, while the prominent display racks up front are stocked with celebrity memoirs, self-help and inspirational books, manuals of various sorts, and genre novels—oh, and with almost no irony, books for dummies. Curiously though, racks filled with blank books for journals, diaries, and the like have multiplied. Journaling has become a big-time industry. So many writers, so few readers.
The last major study of Americans’ reading habits was conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and published in 2007 under the title “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence.” While the study found, unsurprisingly, that reading has generally declined among American teenagers and adults, an equally alarming trend is the decline of “both reading ability and the habit of regular reading … among college graduates” (my emphasis) (9). Among young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, nearly half never open a book for pleasure. Over one-third of college seniors read little or nothing beyond their course requirements, while a recent study revealed that the same number graduate without taking even one course that requires more than forty pages of reading for an entire semester.
According to the NEA report, there are “demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications” for this decline in reading, including lower wages and limited career opportunities. Non-reading also correlated with a decline in cultural activities such as attending classical and jazz concerts and visiting museums. Nonreaders are also probably less healthy, as they don’t participate in outdoor activities and exercise as often as readers. Reading regularly and well, then, is woven into the fabric of a vibrant and healthy society. (10)
In the year preceding the NEA study, fewer than half of all adults in the U.S. had read a single work of literature, such as a novel, short story, or play. A Pew Center telephone survey found that only one third of respondents had spent any time the previous day reading a book. In a 2005 survey by Mediamark Research, only 35 percent of respondents said they had read anything for pleasure in the last twelve months. (11)
Dana Gioia, Chair of the NEA, described the consequences of these trends in an interview on National Public Radio.
“As they read less, they read less well,” Gioia said. “And when they read less well, this has very serious consequences, not just to their academic performance, but to their economic performance and ultimately to their ability to connect with a civic life and political life.” (12)
Reading ability has declined exponentially. During the decade that ended in 2003, the reading proficiency of high school graduates fell by 20 percent, while among college graduates the decline was 22 percent. Perhaps most disturbing is the revelation that proficiency among those with advanced degrees dropped by 20 percent. The most educated people in our society are falling behind not only in how much they read, but in their ability to read!
How surprised should we be, then, to learn that some 55 percent of Americans believe guardian angels are looking out for them, while only 36 percent recognize that humankind has had an impact on the earth’s atmosphere? Or that more people can name the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of the federal government? Or that more than one-fourth of Americans don’t know from what country we declared independence in 1776? (13)
Distrust of education has a long tradition in America. Democracy grew in part from resentment of class distinctions represented and to a large degree reinforced by education. Hostility toward tradition―of which literature is a consummate emblem―is, both for better and worse, woven into the fabric of this country’s culture. Practical and folk wisdom have long been deemed superior to the benefits of education, while the myth of the self-made and self-educated man has assumed, well, mythic proportions―even if instances of such success are vastly outnumbered by the benefits of formal education to most. Twain once again offers some perspective here. “The self taught man,” he wrote in his essay “Taming the Bicycle,” “seldom knows anything accurately, and he does not know a tenth as much as he could have known if he had worked under teachers, and besides, he brags, and is the means of fooling other thoughtless people into going and doing as he himself has done.” (14)
As Richard Hofstadter has shown, the myth of self-made success also has political legs and serves the interests of conservatives and business leaders, who have the financial and political influence to keep the delusion shimmering before masses of people who in turn buy into the belief that enriching the richest among us will somehow benefit them too—or perhaps that taxing the wealthiest one percent of Americans may infringe on their own prospects when they too become billionaires. Further, this myth aligns well with a larger, and also false, perception that education comes at the expense of practical ability and emotional capacity―the simplistic notion that good, clean water has to be poured out of the bucket before you can pour other water (in this case the poisoned water of education) in. Hofstadter describes these false dichotomies:
The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. Once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect, and by extension for the intellectual, is lost. Who cares to risk sacrificing warmth of emotion, solidity of character, practical capacity, or democratic sentiment in order to pay deference to a type of man who at best is deemed to be merely clever and at worst may even be dangerous? (15)What Hofstadter describes here is easily recognizable in the most recent incarnation of the early nineteenth-century nativist movement, the Tea Party. More about that later.
Even attributing this much engagement may be giving too much credit to an American populace that only accepts its politics and even, as the Shivani example above suggests, its literature, condensed into the kind of blood-sport trash talk that precedes professional wrestling matches. Comparisons over the past decade between the Bush Administration and the fictional dictatorship of George Orwell’s 1984 usually focused on the actions of the government while overlooking the ways in which the people of Orwell’s Oceania were responsible for their own plight. As the story’s main character, Winston Smith, burrows down inside the population, trying to escape the watchfulness of Big Brother, he discovers a world that has numbed itself into indifference. In the pubs and neighborhoods he explores, people spend their days consuming Victory Gin and amusing themselves with shallow entertainments, all provided by their leaders. When the proles are told that the country’s long-time war with Eurasia will now be redirected to Eastasia, they unquestioningly switch loyalties and cheers from one side to the other in the course of a single political speech. Booze and TV have so numbed them that they can’t imagine any other world than the one they have. Smith’s torturer smugly describes how little threat they pose to the dictatorship:
What opinions the masses hold, or do not hold, is looked on as a matter of indifference. They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect. (16)How far is Oceania from here? Well, if you take the New Jersey Turnpike from Walt Whitman’s one-time home in Camden, where underfunded public libraries are being forced to close (17), to the new 750-acre, $1.5 billion Meadowlands sports complex, where the Giants and Jets play, it’s about a ninety-minute drive. About that far.
Prospero’s Books occupies an old, two-story brick building on a busy street corner near Kansas City’s Stateline Road, where Missouri meets Kansas. Nearby are several restaurants and bars and a laundromat. A couple of blocks west is the bustling University of Kansas Medical Center. The narrow one-way streets in this neighborhood may require an extra trip around the block before you find a parking spot―and then you have to limber up some calcified parallel parking muscles. Prospero’s is decidedly not in a suburban shopping mall. Parking your Chevy Suburban here would be a hassle if you owned one, which I don’t.
Kansas City, MO
Photo by Bob Sommer
I’d be a hypocrite to grumble about Amazon and the rise of on-line bookselling as I write about the decline of places like Prospero’s. I buy books from Amazon too, and I also own a Kindle, which turns out to be a handy tool for reading. Its pages don’t fly up when I’m eating or exercising. It stores a lot of books. It helps me read more, not less. The Hofstadter book cited above is stored on my Kindle, so are many other books. The question of whether using a Kindle inhibits reading is moot―non-readers are non-readers, no matter how or what they’re not reading. But what is missing with both on-line shopping at Amazon and in-person at big-box stores like Borders is the sense of community you find in places like Prospero’s, the sensory experience I described above, the serendipity of browsing book shelves and finding something unique or hearing about a book from someone who works there and also reads the books on the shelves. Borders has sanitized that experience with its homogeneity and generic stock, and its convenient computer terminals, which don’t even require a clerk to find your item. Borders adds some of the veneer and trappings of old bookstores―a few strategically placed armchairs, oak shelving in some (not all) of the book sections―just enough to give you the flavor of old bookcases, but scratch the surface by asking about a title and all you’re likely to get is an indifferent clerk staring at a computer screen and clicking a mouse.
And the disappearance of places like Prospero’s can’t either be blamed solely on the transfer of book-trading to the internet, though that has undoubtedly played a significant role, but rather to the decline of reading altogether, because if a lot of people were reading books―good books, not romance novels and celebrity tell-alls―stores like Prospero’s would still thrive. Readers need places like Prospero’s to provide not only the books they can’t find or won’t discover anywhere else but the sense of participating in a community, of arriving at a haven for books, of being among others who speak the language. Readers need geography; they need destinations; they need surprise and adventure. Upon retiring after thirty-five years in the business, one independent bookstore owner in Minnesota observed that he would miss the “camaraderie of people coming by, meeting their friends here and talking. I’m just not sure that small bookstores can do what they used to do: be neat places that people develop an emotional relationship with.” (18)
Curiously, while Prospero’s struggles and other independent bookstores disappear altogether, Borders is bankrupt, and not just spiritually but literally. Selling non-book stuff, stocking and promoting only what’s most likely to sell to a market that demands the lowest common denominator, and buying most of that from China and other exporting nations where labor is cheap is how it tried to survive. Borders is big, but not too big to fail. Much of the junk it sells, from coffee canisters to fitness DVDs, can just as easily be bought at Target or Wal-Mart. And books? Well, they’re just loss-leaders for those stores. Commodities, like socks.
Faced with a shrinking market and a mounting inventory of used books, Prospero’s owners finally decided to burn the books they could neither sell nor give away―publicly. What began in early 2007 as an idle thought, a whimsical What-we-oughta-do-is-… kind of moment, turned into a street-side celebration five months later that attracted not only the Kansas City Fire Department but also the Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Colbert Report.
|Will Leathem and Tom Wayne,|
owners of Prospero's Books
Photo by Bob Sommer
The store’s warehouse had accumulated some 20,000 books, and by then Wayne and Leathem were even willing to give them away. They’d tried stationing a walk-in storage bin outside their store where books were free for the taking. Wayne also spent hours driving from libraries to shelters to prisons trying to give away books, but these efforts barely dented the inventory.
How many books is 20,000?
Wayne pointed to a section of his bookcases that measured about three feet wide and a little over six feet high and said it held about 250 books.
In his warehouse, the mother lode took up a space measuring six feet wide, six feet high, and twenty feet long, “solid books, no air.”
“Twenty-thousand books takes three guys a half-day to move,” he said, with the unmistakable conviction of someone who’d done it.
Guys you have to pay, gas you have to burn, time you have to spend.
But there was something sordid, if not outright sacrilegious, about unloading them into a dumpster. There’d be no witnesses; the act would have no meaning. And it seemed as if it should.
Wayne and Leathem believe that even a society that has devalued books and reading has a vestigial sense that dumping books into a dumpster is just wrong.
“Nobody reads anymore,” Leathem said, “but they still have a gut feeling that books should matter, but they can’t remember why. Even non-readers have an instinctive non-religious idolatry for books.”
There’s a long history of what it means to burn books, a history of terror against both authors and readers. Wayne and Leathem would turn that history on its head, Abbie Hoffman-style. Performance art. Guerilla theater―the logical consequence of America’s waning interest in reading: don’t steal the books or burn the money―burn the books!
A YouTube video of the book burning, which took place on Memorial Day weekend in 2007, depicts a block party atmosphere on the sidewalks around Prospero’s. (19)
“This is a funeral pyre for thought in America!” Wayne declares in the opening sequence. “We are couching this as a statement on a culture that doesn’t appreciate the word …. By not reading [books], they’re essentially burning them.”
Wayne presides over a caldron-like barbeque pit, prodding books like meat on a grill. The Doors’ “Light My Fire” plays over the chatter of people balancing stacks of books like plates of potato salad and burgers.
Mischief and gleeful wit salt the comments from people at the event.
“They’re out of brats, man. I’m really pissed,” quips one book-buyer. Then he grins and adds, “I’ll have a little My Friend Flicka in lieu of a brat.”
A close-up shows Fred J. MacDonald’s One Nation under Television just before it succumbs to the flames. Another shot zooms in on a t-shirt silk-screened with the words of the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky: “There are worse crimes than burning books, one is not reading them.”
Then comes the metallic blip of a Kansas City Fire Department vehicle. A pumper truck soon follows, ominous, large, red. Firemen in heavy jump suits stand around as the inevitable confrontation ensues over whether Wayne and Leathem have a fire permit. Wayne refuses to put out the fire, which the firemen unceremoniously do with a hose intended for much bigger game than the paltry campfire flames in the caldron―an appropriately absurd ending to the street theater performance, as the massive hose overwhelms the meager fire and smoke fills the air.
Leathem and Wayne received over 3,000 emails in response to their event. They estimate that some 40,000 blog postings and 600 news stories appeared. CNN, The New York Times, and Stephen Colbert all covered it. (20) Most responses were supportive, but not all. Criticism ranged from inventory mismanagement to accusations that it was just a publicity stunt. Also, just as Leathem predicted, sacrilege.
Wrote one blogger: "I want those books. I cry for those goddamn books. I have never, ever been able to bear to throw a book away, and the thought of burning people's thoughts and words and fucking lifetime works just makes me want to scream." (21)
From another blogger: “He can ship them to me, and I’ll take them off his hands!” (22)
Of course, who would pay to pack and ship the books was not mentioned.
Prospero’s owners welcomed the hostility.
“I’m happy they were mad,” Leathem said. “We were pretty mad too! Why the hell can’t you buy a book?! We’re forced by law to support various industries in this country. You have to have insurance to drive. Why don’t we have intellectual insurance so everyone is required by law to prove that they read one thing that wasn’t required by school or work in a week?”
“Or a year,” Wayne added.
“Let’s have cultural insurance!” Leathem said.
Wayne continued, “We were holding up the mirror to society to show the disconnect between action and rhetoric. People don’t like burning books, but the way they treat them is essentially burning them. They’re doing the same thing on a daily basis.”
“The Nazis burned books so you couldn’t read them,” Leathem said. “We burned them in hopes that you will.”
|Spared from the fire|
Photo by Bob Sommer
One batch, however, was spared from the flames, which you can still see in the store, stacked and impaled on a pipe that rises about ten feet over the front counter and capped with a globe of planet Earth.
Caliban figures this is how you strip Prospero of his magic and power:
Remember“Burn but his books,” he beseeches Stephano.
First to possess his books; for without them
He's but a sot, as I am…
(The Tempest, III, ii, 99-101)
Once Prospero is powerless―just “a sot,” like him―Caliban will be free. Whether he deserves freedom is another matter.
Book burnings both before and since Shakespeare’s time have typically lacked the irony and wit of Tom Wayne and Will Leathem’s guerilla theater. Michael Servetus, for example, whose writings crossed John Calvin the wrong way in the sixteenth century, died a long and horrific death at the stake with one of his books chained to his leg. (23) In third century B.C. China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang infamously ordered the burning of scholarly and historical writings not to his liking, followed by an order to put nearly five hundred scholars found in possession of forbidden books to a ghastly death by burying them alive in a mass grave. Such examples, unfortunately, are countless.
As Caliban recognized, book burning asserts power and authority. Arguments are won in the flames. Syllogisms completed. Fire gives firestarters the last word, so to speak. A single emblematic gesture gathers words and ideas, art and artifacts, past and future into the blaze. Book burning is traditionally so bound with terror that the act itself resonates with violence even when no one is physically hurt. The homophobes who burned copies of the teen novel Annie on My Mind on the steps of a Kansas school district office just fifteen years ago share in that tradition of violence. So does Terry Jones, the mustache-challenged Gainesville, Florida, minister who burned the Qur’ān to protest construction of an Islamic civic center a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York.
Violence against people follows violence against books. The Soviet authorities who torched Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s books condemned him to years in the gulag. Islamic extremists burned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and then issued a fatwa against him, essentially an open contract to kill him, while bookstores carrying his works were firebombed and trashed throughout the U.K. and U.S. Violence against readers and writers, or the threat of it, is as inseparable from book burning as the symbolic acts of leaving an empty noose on a professor’s door or hanging one from a tree limb in front of a school are from the terrible history of lynching. (24) How else should one interpret book burning? If writers keep writing and readers keep reading, violence is the only recourse of tyrants and mobs.
Of course, if they don’t, the tyrants and mobs win.
In Shakespeare’s time, Caliban would not have been seen as a victim of social injustice; the idea that learning to read Prospero’s books would offer him a better pathway to freedom than burning them is absurd in the play’s historical and dramatic context. Still, it is more than obvious that the frustration of ignorance feeds his resentment. If anything, his ignorance is the basis for dramatic irony and comedy. The only clear path to power for Caliban is to destroy the books.
Sinclair Lewis’s emblematic character George Babbitt is also a Caliban of sorts―perhaps still at a pre-pyrotechnic stage, but his direction is clear, and the outcome equally certain, to him, at least. As he addresses his fellow realtors, exhorting them to build a dream world for his ideal of the “Standardized Citizen,” he identifies the true enemy within―and he’s clear that he doesn’t mean “liberals” and “communists.” They are presumably transparent enough to keep out of public office because the growing population of “Standardized Citizens” in Zenith and elsewhere won’t be fooled into voting for them. No, he has a more insidious threat in mind:
And when it come to these blab-mouth, fault-finding, pessimistic, cynical University teachers, let me tell you that during this golden coming year it’s just as much our duty to bring influence to have those cusses fired as it is to sell all the real estate and gather in all the good shekels we can. (25)Lewis published this scathing indictment of middle-class American philistinism in 1922. It’s difficult to say, most of a century later, that Babbitt didn’t win. I have to inject a personal anecdote here. I recently interviewed for a college teaching position only to discover that one reason I may have been talking at cross-purposes with the search committee was because the chair himself, I learned, “specialized” in “writing” video games. Another of my resumes fell into the black hole of an English Department chaired by a “specialist” in “Harry Potter Studies.” I began to feel like a character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. I have other similar anecdotes. No doubt, anyone who’s read this far does too. Please insert yours here: ______________________, etc. (Or better yet, send them to my blog.)
Neil Postman suggests a dichotomy between the worlds of Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. (We keep landing back in The Tempest, don’t we?) While the former represents a terror-state enforced from above by a despotic government, the latter depicts a society entirely given over to sensory pleasure. Its citizens embrace oppression in a world that satisfies their appetites through technology and mass production.
“What Orwell feared,” Postman writes, “were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book.” (26)
Yet Orwell and Huxley, I would suggest, are not polar opposites, but rather points on the same historical trajectory.
Here is Orwell describing how the Party gained and secured power:
In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening, By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird. (27)Similarly, in yet another Orwellian take on a world oppressed by a ruthless dictator on a jumbo screen, the movie V for Vendetta depicts a society that gradually, in exchange for the illusion of security, traded away its rights and liberties through the manipulation of fear by its leaders and the ignorance and apathy of its citizenry. Huxley’s Brave New World is one possible outcome of Babbitt’s vision, which, in his speech to the realtors convention, remarkably anticipates much of the recent political cant from the extreme right, while 1984 and V are alternative outcomes. Back in our current reality, still another outcome, as I’ve suggested, is the degradation of the natural world into a barren and uninhabitable wasteland. Organizations with missions as diverse as the U.S. military and the United Nations take climate change seriously enough to have drawn up some very dire scenarios. (28) Coincidentally, the time since Babbitt was published is also about the same as remains until the end of this century, when the tipping point will have long past, if it hasn’t already.
George Babbitt has his own political movement now―the Tea Party―and the codeword for not only Babbitt’s university professors but for anyone who reads anything deeper than romance novels or uses facts and reasoning and complete sentences rather than bumper-sticker slogans to discuss the issues is elites. To frame a suitable analogy, we might say that the Tea Party is to neoliberalism what crude oil is to gasoline—the pure, undiluted, unfiltered, unprocessed expression of the libertarian, free-market fundamentalism that has boiled and rumbled for decades within traditional conservatism. Its various hypocrisies don’t much concern us here. Rather, what is of interest is how the Tea Party has fully realized and expressed a traditional suspicion of reading, learning, and education that’s been long embedded in American culture, but whose renaissance began with the landslide election that brought the country its first movie-star president: The Gipper, Ronald Reagan. One of Reagan’s first acts as president, we recall, was to remove the solar panels from the White House roof that Jimmy Carter had put there. (It’s taken thirty years, but President Obama finally had new panels installed.) Reagan, of course, gave us such memorable environmental insights as, "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do” and if “you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.” (29) Reagan’s disastrous environmental record is worth its own book, but the point here is the appeal of his simplistic language and thinking. Trivialization is how you undercut elites. “There you go again!”
It is an effective way to redirect discourse away from the issue and onto the individual. It distracts and entertains at once. It invites us to focus on Al Gore’s weight, John Kerry’s speech patterns, Barack Obama’s race or religion or anything besides what he said. Literary critic Geoffrey H. Hartman connects such tactics to our overexposure to media, which degrades our ability to conduct meaningful discourse. The media, according to Hartman, has so surrounded us that we live in “a modern form of claustrophobia,” which he describes as “an antipastoral world, where no one is allowed to be at rest and the idea of home (or of a homeland) is exploited by reactive political nostalgias impossible to satisfy.” (30)
Just such nostalgias are a near obsession of the Tea Party and other groups on the extreme right, who often evoke an idealized and fictional American past that, fittingly enough, bears a closer resemblance to the Reaganesque television programming and movies of the 1940s and 50s than it does to reality. And where it does resemble reality, it is the reality of pre-civil rights and pre-women’s rights America, when unfettered corporate growth was oblivious to environmental consequences and an ever-expanding global military presence was supported by the almost universally unchallenged belief that America’s “goodness” and “interests” trumped self-determination by other nations and peoples.
For the creators of the current nostalgia myth anti-intellectualism is a mainstay of their tenets. Success and moral certitude have no required reading list. If anything, too much reading will just undermine them. Rush Limbaugh, the voice of conservatism and the undisputed leader of the Republican Party, failed out of college after two semesters yet he has attained the status of an intellectual icon among his listeners and followers. Sarah Palin thought Katie Couric’s inquiry about what she reads was a “trick question.” One of Palin’s gambits as mayor of Wasilla was to solicit a loyalty statement from the town’s librarian declaring her readiness to remove books from the shelves at Palin’s request. The courageous librarian refused, and Palin tried unsuccessfully to fire her.
As Maureen Dowd recently pointed out, “Sarah Palin, has made ignorance fashionable”:
You struggle to name Supreme Court cases, newspapers you read and even founding fathers you admire? No problem. You endorse a candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate seat who is the nominee in West Virginia? Oh, well.The Tea Party has been touted for attracting “educated” participants. But the hard numbers make that claim suspect. Among those who identified themselves as Tea Partiers in a recent New York Times/CBS poll, only 37 percent graduated from college, just 12 points higher than the average of 25 percent for Americans overall (i.e., not just those identifying themselves as members of a political party). (32) Additionally, we’ve already seen what that means about their reading habits: less than half of the “educated” group have even opened a book recently, or to put it another way, only 18 percent of Tea Party members, less than one-fifth, are likely to have read a book in the last twelve months. Even author Sarah Palin can’t entice the other 82 percent into reading her ghost-written book! And among those who have read at least one book in the past year, the most popular choices are religious books and romance and genre novels. (33)
At least you’re not one of those ‘spineless’ elites with an Ivy League education, like President Obama, who can’t feel anything. It’s news to Christine O’Donnell that the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. It’s news to Joe Miller, whose guards handcuffed a journalist, and to Carl Paladino, who threatened The New York Post’s Fred Dicker, that the First Amendment exists, even in Tea Party Land. Michele Bachmann calls Smoot-Hawley Hoot-Smalley. (31)
Self-described “rodeo clown” and college dropout, Glenn Beck offers a unique educational opportunity for those Tea Partiers and others who may find “elite” schools too difficult, or too full of liberal professors, or, according to his website, who would simply like to “head back to the classroom – from the comfort of your own home.” (34)
Per the website, here’s what prospective students can expect:
Beck University is a unique academic experience bringing together experts in the fields of religion, American history and economics. Through captivating lectures and interactive online discussions, these experts will explore the concepts of Faith, Hope and Charity and show you how they influence America’s past, her present and most importantly her future.On his TV show, Beck often playacts the role of a professor at a chalk board free-associating his way through bizarre deconstructions of various historical moments or tracing weird etymologies of his own invention.
Last year he initiated the so-called 912 Project, whose goal is (sic passim) “to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.” (35) The project was based on a set of “principles” drawn from quotations by the Founders, which Beck rephrased to his own liking or just plain dumbed down. Here’s a sampling:
• America Is GoodCaps are sprinkled like coarse pepper throughout the nine principles.
• I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life
• I have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results
The 912 Project tapped the nostalgia theme twice over, first invoking the idealized and imagined past (and words) of the Founding Fathers and then the more recent and also idealized past of the post-9/11 days. Another of Beck’s recent projects was to mock Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech by staging a so-called “Restoring the Honor” rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the forty-seventh anniversary of King’s speech. Participants interviewed at the nearly all-white event showcased the paranoid misinformation Beck and others like him peddle, from questioning President Obama’s citizenship and religion to claiming that it’s now illegal to pray at national monuments.
Beck’s followers are as likely to burn books as read them. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of an exchange among participants at another Beck event:
Woman: [Shouts] “Burn the books!” [applause]Underestimating the power and political savvy of Beck, Palin, Limbaugh and the hordes who follow them would be a dangerous mistake. They may be clowns, but only in the eyes of some beholders. Real clowns know what they are, while these clowns are busily accumulating campaign war chests and exhorting people into the streets and voting booths in growing numbers and often in frightening ways. Openly armed people showed up when President Obama appeared at a healthcare forum in 2009. A suicidal maniac crashed his plane into an IRS building in Texas and won posthumous praise in some conservative quarters. Inflamed mobs spat on a black U.S. congressman in front of the Capitol building, yet no Republican leader condemned the act.
Man: “I don't think you were serious about that, were you?”
Woman: “I am too.”
Man: “Burn all the books?!”
Woman: “The ones in college, those, those brainwashing books.”
Man: [laughs] “Brainwashing books?”
Man: “Which ones are those?”
Woman: “Like, the evolution crap, and, yeah...” (36)
Death threats against Democratic senators and representatives have increased exponentially since Obama was inaugurated, while the 2010 mid-term election campaigns included a call for armed rebellion by one Republican candidate for the House. Sharron Angle, the Republican Senate nominee in Nevada, called for “Second Amendment remedies” as “the cure for the Harry Reid problems.” (37) It is difficult to separate the horrific shootings in Tucson earlier this year from such rhetoric and the climate it has created.
Will Leathem, who in a past life was a political operative on a national level, points out that our “political views are a mirror of the culture.” George W. Bush―faux populist, frat boy, ‘C’ student, diplomatic prankster, fear-mongerer, starter of wars, and mangler of the English language―was what the country wanted, twice, slightly more than half of it anyway. Beck made $32 million last year from his combined salary at Fox News and his radio and publishing ventures. Limbaugh signed an eight-year deal with Clear Channel Communications worth over $400 million. (38)
At stake for all of them is the preservation of a free-market fundamentalism that regards biodiversity as an obstacle to growth and treats the abundance of the planet as nothing more than a storehouse of resources to be mined, burned, cut, and consumed. They all promote the beliefs that challenging problems have simple solutions, that the give-and-take of informed argument is evidence of weakness, and that complexity masks deception. They are not the reason Americans read less: they are the result, and their power depends on keeping ignorance in ascendancy. And if they succeed, future book burnings in America won’t be characterized by the mischievous spirit and ironic wit that Tom Wayne and Will Leathem brought to theirs, but rather by more sinister and threatening tones, and they will not end well.
Bob Sommer is the author of Where the Wind Blew and the forthcoming novel, A Great Fullness. He blogs at Uncommon Hours. His email is email@example.com.
This essay is excerpted from a longer work-in-progress.
(1) Anis Shivani, “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers,” Huffington Post, August 7, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/the-15-most-overrated-con_b_672974.html#s123717&title=undefined
(2) Juliette Jowit and Christine Ottery, “Global Emissions Targets Will Lead to 4C Temperature Rise, Say Studies predict major extinctions and collapse of Greenland ice sheet with temperatures rising well above UN targets,” The Guardian/UK, July 6, 2010 (see: http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/07/06-0
(3) Bill McKibben, “Catastrophic Weather Events Are Becoming the New Normal -- Are You Ready for Life on Our Planet Circa 2011?” AlterNet, February 2, 2011 (see: http://www.alternet.org/environment/149774/catastrophic_weather_events_are_becoming_the_new_normal_--_are_you_ready_for_life_on_our_planet_circa_2011/).
(4) Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. 63.
(5) Quoted in Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), p. 300.
(6) Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation Books, 2009), p. 17.
(7) Hedges, p. 45.
(8) Mark Twain, “The United States of Lyncherdom,” full text available at http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam482e/lyncherdom.html.
(9) “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence,” National Endowment for the Arts, Research Report No. 47, November 2007, p. 5. Available in PDF at http://www.arts.gov/research/ResearchReports_chrono.html.
(10) Ibid. See also, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, “Your So-Called Education,” New York Times, May 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/opinion/15arum.html?_r=1.
(11) “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence,” p. 45.
(12) Interview by Lynn Neary, “Reading Study Shows Remarkable Decline in U.S.,” National Public Radio, November 19, 2007. Available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16435529.
(13) “Fewer Americans See Solid Evidence of Global Warming,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, October 22, 2009 (see: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1386/cap-and-trade-global-warming-opinion) and Jacqueline L. Salmon, “Most Americans Believe in Higher Power, Poll Finds,” Washington Post, June 24, 2008 (see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/23/AR2008062300813_pf.html). “Dwarfs better-known than US justices: poll,” ABC News On-Line, Tuesday, August 15, 2006 (see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200608/s1715009.htm). “Don’t Know Much About History?” Marist Poll, July 2, 2010 (see: http://maristpoll.marist.edu/72-don%E2%80%99t-know-much-about-history/).
(14) Mark Twain, “Taming the Bicycle,” full text available at http://www.classicauthors.net/twain/whatisman/whatisman35.html.
(15) Hofstadter, pp. 45-6.
(16) George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949, Signet reprint. 1961), p. 129.
(17) Matt Katz, “Camden preparing to close its libraries, destroy books,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 06, 2010 (see: http://articles.philly.com/2010-08-06/news/24972581_1_library-board-three-libraries-library-book).
(18) Ross Currier, “The Future of Books and Bookstores,” May 30, 2007, http://locallygrownnorthfield.org/post/1462/.
(19) “The Book Burning,” YouTube.com, posted May 28, 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiXJ_jIvb6Y.
(20) David Twiddy, “Mo. man burns books as act of protest,” USA Today, May 28, 2007 (see: http://www.usatoday.com/news/offbeat/2007-05-28-mo-book-burning_N.htm?csp=34); Dan Barry, “A Requiem for Reading in a Smoldering Pyre of Books,” New York Times, June 3, 2007 (see: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9506E6DD1030F930A35755C0A9619C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all); The Colbert Report, June 6, 2007 (see: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/183016/june-06-2007/tip-wag---deep-purple).
(21) “Burning Books?!” Metachat.org, May 28, 2007 (see: http://metachat.org/index.php/2007/05/28/p23514).
(22) Dawn Papuga, “More Book Burning at Prospero’s Books,” dawnpapuga.com, September 3, 2007 (see: http://dawnpapuga.com/?p=41).
(23) “Detail on the Trial and Execution of Servetus at Geneva,” Servetus International Society, servetus.org (see: http://www.servetus.org/en/michael-servetus/biography/bio7.htm).
(24) “Columbia Professor Says She ‘Will Not Be Silenced,’ Police Continue Hate Crime Investigation,” http://gothamist.com/2007/10/11/columbia.php; Bill Quigley, “Injustice in Jena as Nooses Hang From the ‘White Tree,’” truth-out.org, July 3, 2007 (see: http://www.truth-out.org/article/bill-quigley-injustice-jena-nooses-hang-from-white-tree).
(25) Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922), p. 188.
(26) Postman, p. vii.
(27) Orwell, p. 129.
(28) The website for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is http://www.ipcc.ch/. Mark Townsend and Paul Harris, “Now the Pentagon Tells Bush: Climate Change Will Destroy Us Secret Report Warns of Rioting and Nuclear War; Threat to the World is Greater than Terrorism,” Observer/UK, February 22, 2004 (see: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0222-01.htm). Timothy Gardner, “U.S. military leads climate change combat: Pew,” Reuters, April 20, 2010 (see: http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/04/20/us-climate-defense-idUSTRE63J4EJ20100420).
(29) Amanda Little, “A look back at Reagan’s environmental record,” Grist.org, June 10, 2004 (see: http://www.grist.org/article/griscom-reagan).
(30) Geoffrey H. Hartmann, The Fateful Question of Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 158.
(31) Maureen Dowd, “Making Ignorance Chic,” New York Times, October 20, 2010 (see: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/20/opinion/20dowd.html?_r=1&ref=opinion).
(32) Brian Montopoli, “Tea Party Supporters: Who They Are and What They Believe,” CBS News.com, April 14, 2010 (see: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20002529-503544.html).
(33) “One in four read no books last year,” USA Today.com, August 21, 2007 (see: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-08-21-reading_N.htm).
(34) “Announcing Beck University,” glennbeck.com, July 6, 2010 (see: http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/42502), passim.
(35) See: http://the912-project.com/test/, passim.
(36) “A Very Special Book-Burning Glenn Beck Tea Party,” gawker.com, April 2010 (the video has been disabled by the transcript is still available here: http://gawker.com/5207368/a-very-special-book+burning-glenn-beck-tea-party).
(37) “Republican advocates armed rebellion in campaign ad,” The Richmonder, June 15, 2010 (see: http://www.the-richmonder.com/2010/06/republican-advocates-armed-rebellion-in.html); Sam Stein, “Sharron Angle Floated ‘2nd Amendment Remedies’ As ‘Cure’ For ‘The Harry Reid Problems,’” The Huffington Post, June 16, 2010 (see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/16/sharron-angle-floated-2nd_n_614003.html).
(38) Brad Trechak, “Glenn Beck Made $32 Million in Past Year, But Not Much from Fox,” TV Squad.com, April 8, 2010 (see: http://www.tvsquad.com/2010/04/08/glenn-beck-made-32-million-in-past-year-but-not-much-from-fox). “Right wing radio host Rush Limbaugh signs 400 million dollar deal,” monstersandcritics.com, July 2, 2008 (see: http://www.monstersandcritics.com/news/usa/news/article_1414676.php/Right_wing_radio_host_Rush_Limbaugh_signs_400_million_dollar_deal).