For years, I’ve been among those who joke about books people buy, but never read, such as Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time or Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum — books that occupy space on shelves or tables as social signals, totems of an intellectual bent that may or may not actually exist, but which the wielder hopes to communicate to his audience. In recent years, meanwhile, there seems to be a cultural shift away from this sort of poseurism, but it’s a shift toward another sort — whatever one might call the position of proudly discussing books one hasn’t read.
In some ways, I think there’s a weird manifestation of E.D. Hirsch’s cultural literacy at work. Remember, Hirsch observed that it isn’t necessary to actually read a work like Romeo and Juliet; one can function quite well as long as one can identify it as the referent in a line like “Wherefore art thou?” (Of course, lots of folks think “wherefore” means “where” rather than “why”, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.)
But where I’m going with this is that a growing proportion of people — including those who ostensibly think about books and literature, including those who are actually paid to do that very thing — are acknowledging that in many cases, they have not read the works under discussion, nor have they the intention of reading those works. Ever. And while in the past, such an admission was, well, an admission, we now seem to find it declared with insouciance, even a wink at one’s own cheekiness.
It is a world not of illiteracy, but rather aliteracy, and while we may be used to that sort of thing from the historic underclasses of our society (although not always — consider the 20th-C. phenomenon of the Middlebrow with ambition, or farther back, Johnson’s boatman who longed for the chance to be educated), it’s a more recent development in the allegedly intellectual classes.
All this is the subject of an article by Alex Good in Canadian periodical The Walrus — I commend it to your attention, and find the conclusion intriguing:
We have created a void, and what has rushed to fill it is either ignorant bloviating or, even worse, the manipulations of self-interested parties, now free to operate without checks or balances. Such hollowness may be comfortable—not reading is easier than reading—but it cannot be sustained. What scares me is that the rot now so much in evidence at the top of the food chain is the result of what have been bottom-up cultural forces. Which means we really have nothing to fall back on as well as no guides left to urge a change of course.