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Endpaper: The Decline of Reading for Pleasure

And so this appears to be the end. More than nine years ago when I began writing a weekly book review for CounterPunch and was soon to retire from more than fifty years of teaching, I thought I needed something to continue to keep my mind active. What better way than to read a couple of books a week and then write a review of one of them? There’s Alzheimer’s in my family. By keeping my mind charging along, I thought I could keep the wolves outside the door, perhaps away from my property. What I hadn’t anticipated was that it would be my body that would turn against me, not my mind. I’m getting older, and health issues have begun consuming too much of my time. (My wife wisely observes that as we age the body requires too much maintenance.)

So it’s time to stop writing the weekly review and turn to the books that I’ve missed during the past few years (such as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer), re-read the many books that have delighted me in my life, watch old movies that I want to see again, and listen to more music than I’ve had the time for during the past few years. Specifically, I want to re-read books that had an important influence on me during earlier times in my life. A few weeks ago, I re-read John Buchan’s Prester John (1910) an adventure story with an African setting, much like the more familiar King Solomon’s Mines (1895), by Henry Rider Haggard. I wanted to re-read Buchan’s novel because—crazy as this still seems to me—it was a work everyone in my eighth or ninth-grade English class was assigned to read in Burlington, Iowa, of all places, and the first exposure I had to anything related to Africa. It’s a racist work, as I remembered, and the hard-back edition my school had for classroom reading also included half a dozen or so illustrations, also stereotypical. For more than sixty years I’ve been trying to figure out why Prester John—of all the books we might have been required to read—was the assigned group text. I’ve remembered it because of my later years living in Africa (as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria), followed by numerous trips back to the continent, and my subsequent scholarship focused on African and other non-Western literature. No surprise, but I can’t recall the titles of any other books we read in my public school English classes, though obviously there were others.

Thus, Prester John is the outlier, sui generis for my early reading years. More importantly for my re-reading are the writers I admired in my teens and early twenties, writers like Joseph Conrad and Eugene O’Neill, to mention only two. I downloaded all of Conrad’s novels on my Kindle for $1.00 and, although I prefer to hold real books in my hands, I’ve finished Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) Victory (1915), my favorite novel as an undergraduate English major, and I have also read Maya Jasanoff’s brilliant work, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. All these decades later, Victory is still one of the most haunting stories I have ever read. And I recently purchased three volumes of O’Neill’s collected plays that have arrived in their Library of America editions. O’Neill was our country’s second Nobel Prize winner in 1936, after Sinclair Lewis six years earlier. I loved O’Neill when I was in high school and read most of his plays in those years. For decades, it struck me that O’Neill is our only playwright to win the prize. (I always thought that Tennessee Williams was equally deserving.) Perhaps we should be asking why, in recent years, so few American novelists have won the Nobel Prize for literature or some of the other highly coveted international awards. The last novelist was Toni Morrison, in 1993. Squabbles within the Nobel literature academy have leaked into the public, telling us that Philip Roth (truly, America’s greatest living novelist) will never win the award.

The best decision I made about my own career as a professor of literature—after I returned from Africa in 1964—was to shift my scholarly interests from American to non-Western literature. I must have taught Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) more than a hundred times during my career (often several times a year) virtually memorizing the novel. My letters (and those of others) to the Swedish Academy nominating Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet and playwright, for the literature award became a particular source of satisfaction for me when Soyinka was awarded the prize in 1986. Slowly, other non-Western writers were equally celebrated. And my decision to review books for CounterPunch—after having written hundreds of book reviews during the years when I was still teaching—was shaped significantly by the fact that Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn gave me freedom to review whatever I wanted. I assure you that that does not happen at most publications that cover books. As I’ve frequently stated in my reviews of fiction, I’ve wanted to focus on books and writers who are often ignored by the American press.

That has meant total excitement in discoveries of such writers as Orhan Pamuk, Hanan al-Shaykh, Teju Cole, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam, and Sergio Ramírez, to mention only six. The two undisputed masterpieces I’ve reviewed for CounterPunch are Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2009) and Ramírez’s Divine Punishment (2015); the dates are for the English translations. Pamuk is Turkish; Ramírez, Nicaraguan. Pamuk’s novel is the most extraordinary and absorbing account I have ever read of obsessive love. Ramírez’s story is a totally unsettling picture of corruption by the elite, set in Latin America but it could be almost anywhere else. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006.  Of the other writers mentioned above, Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani and the author of five powerful novels) is, in my opinion, the most talented. His view of Islamic fundamentalism in his searing novels is replete with biting observations, such as one he poses in The Blind Man’s Garden (2015): why is it that radical imams in madrassas never indoctrinate their own children into becoming suicide bombers?

My greatest concern as a retiring book critic is what I regard as a precipitous decline in literary reading, that is, works that compel us to question our own values and the machinations of the world around us—serious literature. The problem is nowhere better illustrated than by our current president, who has no hesitation to admit that he reads nothing. And I fear it’s true of most of the people in Trump’s cabinet. Can you imagine Betsy DeVos, our Secretary of Education, actually reading a novel? The Trump administration has become a celebration of ignorance, though the problem started much earlier. Remember when Sarah Palin was asked in an interview what periodicals she read to keep herself informed about current issues? She had no answer. What kind of message does that send to younger people? But it’s also an explanation for Republican attitudes toward science and global warming. If you haven’t read anything, it’s easy to become a denier—oblivious to the tragic consequences of such ignorance for the rest of us. The vast majority of Americans who read nothing are trapped in the same dark room.

When I look around, what I see are people of all ages glued to their cell phones, just as in the past people were deeply absorbed in their books or at least the newspapers and periodicals they were reading. Mobile phones have ruined people’s ability to concentrate, what is necessary for sitting down somewhere and actually spending several hours with a book. That’s what has been lost, except for the few remaining college humanities majors whose parents criticize them for majoring in subjects they believe will never lead to high-paying jobs (in spite of all the information to the contrary). How hard it has become to live in a world of such stunning ignorance. Worse, how tragic to observe one of our two major political parties doing everything it can to make certain that young people are not properly educated or informed. No surprise at all that reading for pleasure is in a state of decline.

The dearth of younger readers (and too many English professors who are willing to cater to them) means that important authors are rarely taught any longer. Who reads Sinclair Lewis, (America’s first Nobel Prize winner)? Ditto, Edith Wharton, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, Dawn Powell, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and John Gardner—to mention only a few American possibilities? These writers excited me when I first read them as a young man. Often, I’d read one of their books and then rapidly read all of the others. What a fantastic pleasure to read the entire works of a writer. Does anyone do that today? We claim we’re too busy, but that mostly translates into looking at junk on the Internet and glancing obsessively at our phones to see if we’ve missed anything in the few minutes since we last checked them. And I’m only talking about literature. If you move into other areas—geography, for example—the ignorance is the same. Of all the revealing statements that our mentally challenged president has made since he’s been in office, the most troubling for me is a remark he made during his recent trip to Asia. He said that he was surprised to learn that there are so many countries in the world.

Where has he been? Where will his ignorance lead us?

Those are questions I may not live to have the answers for, though I hope I live long enough to see a political change in our country. We are better than our current leaders, who are distinguished by their greed, their self-centeredness, their lack of humanity, their bellicose response to minor events, and their overwhelming ignorance.

At the risk of sounding like a politician, let me add that another major consideration for ceasing to write book reviews for CounterPunch is my growing need to spend more time with my family (my wife and two grown children). But, returning to where I started, it should be obvious that nothing will give me more pleasure than sorting through the books of my fortunate life and determining which ones I want to read again—as well as so many other important books I have not read.

Thank you for reading.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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