In America, reading is alive, but not very well Best sellers: Reader tastes have gone from coq an vin to Chicken McNuggets.


Is reading dead? Of course not. More books are being bought - and, presumably, read - than ever before. Drop by Bibelot or Borders and you'll see that the book business is booming. But before you breathe that proverbial sigh of relief, take a closer look at what the customers around you are buying. The experience may make you think twice about the future of reading.

I offer in evidence the best-seller list published in the Oct. 6 issue of the New York Times Book Review, which contained not one current novel that was "serious" in any recognizable sense of the word. So what's selling instead? Here are some of the Times' one-line summaries of the most popular novels in America:

* "A dark angel seeking redemption makes a perilous journey from ancient Babylon to modern Manhattan." ("Servant of the Bones," by Anne Rice)

* "An ancient manuscript, found in Peru, provides insights into achieving a fulfilling life." ("The Celestine Prophecy," by James Redfield)

*"The aging head of a Mafia family makes plans for his heirs' activities in Hollywood and Las Vegas." ("The Last Don," by Mario Puzo)

* "Alex Cross on the trail of serial killers at large in Washington." ("Jack and Jill," by James Patterson)

Now look at a Times best-seller list of the past, July 25, 1949. Forty-seven years ago, Americans were buying, reading and talking about George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four," H. L. Mencken's "A Mencken Chrestomathy," Thomas Merton's "The Seven Storey Mountain," John P. Marquand's "Point of No Return," Nancy Mitford's "Love in a Cold Climate" and Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead."

No matter what yardstick you apply, that list measures up. What's more, even the lighter titles on the earlier list - "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Father of the Bride" among them - were for the most part infinitely more readable than the junk fiction and celebrity memoir of today.

Nor are these two lists isolated phenomena. It's true that Americans have always read a certain amount of trash, but spend an hour or two with old best- seller lists and you'll realize that the ratio of serious books to trash has been tilting steadily trashward for the past quarter-century.

If anything, the tilt is growing steeper: Certain major publishing houses now devote most of their time, money and effort to the marketing of pseudo-books "written" by comedians, politicians and sexologists. Such books are to the real thing as a Chicken McNugget is to coq au vin.

Time was when serious writers could command a mass audience, and thereby shape the nation's cultural discourse. Orwell and Mencken did it. So did Ernest Hemingway. But in the '90s, American magazines and newspapers increasingly demphasize the literary life. The kind of book section you're reading now has become a rarity. And writers themselves are becoming less and less central to our cultural life. Can you think ++ of a book published in the last decade that has been read by, say, six out of ten of your friends? When did you last see a novelist on "The Late Show with David Letterman"?

Once again, this is not a fluke: it's a trend. In its Oct. 6 issue, the New York Times Book Review celebrated its centennial by reprinting its original reviews of various important books of the past hundred years: "Lord Jim," "Ulysses," "The Grapes of Wrath," "Invisible Man," "Franny and Zooey" and many more.

Stirring stuff, until you started inching closer to the present. Thirteen titles from the '80s and '90s were included. Of these, the only one which both sold well and made a powerful impact on American culture was Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" - published a decade ago. Except for Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" (which became famous in spite of itself), the remaining titles, though worthy enough, failed to seize the attention of the public at large, which was too busy reading about vampires and Mafia dons.

Books as pork bellies

Seen from this point of view, sales figures in the book industry take on a very different meaning. As publicly held publishing companies seek to maximize their profits, the lowest-common-denominator approach to book publishing grows ever more widespread.

We have, it seems, entered the age of the book as commodity - a time in which the writing and publishing of books is conducted on the assumption that profit is all. Indeed, the time may well come when money marketeers buy and sell "book futures" in the same way they now gamble on the rise and fall in the price of pork bellies. If and when that happens, you can bet that the smart money (if you want to call it that) will be on Anne Rice and James Redfield, not Tom Wolfe and Salman Rushdie.

To be sure, not all the news is bad. Plenty of people still care passionately about books, and plenty of publishers are still prepared - for now - to cater to that passion. Alberto Manguel's "A History of Reading" (Viking, 353 pages, $26.95), for example, is a delightfully idiosyncratic exploration of the fine art of reading, as well as an eloquent defense of literature itself: "We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, " is our essential function."

As for the rise of megabookstores, those who patronize them regularly know better than to dismiss them as mass marketing for the marginally literate. Snobby New Yorkers long accustomed to four-bookstore neighborhoods may have seen the coming of Barnes & Noble as a disaster, but the fact is that well-stocked megastores are bringing books in abundance - including an abundance of good books - to hundreds of thousands of American readers who have never before had easy access to any kind of good bookstore whatsoever. If K-mart thinks it can make serious money out of Borders, then all hope is not lost.

Democracy in action

It had better not be. For what we risk by allowing reading to fall victim to the onslaught of trash fiction, TV and video games is nothing more or less than our national soul.

Baltimore proudly calls itself "the city that reads." That is more than just an advertising slogan: it's a working definition of democracy in action. The very idea of democracy is based on the notion that all citizens are capable of intelligently determining their fate, and thus deserve a voice in the making of the future.

No, reading will never die out completely. "A History of Reading" contains a photograph of a library in London that was struck by a Nazi bomb. The ceiling is caved in, the floor covered with rubble. But the shelves still stand - and three men are looking through them for something to read. "They are not turning their backs on the war, or ignoring the destruction," Alberto Manguel writes.

"They are not choosing the books over life outside. They are trying to persist against the obvious odds; they are asserting a common right to ask; they are attempting to find once again - among the ruins, in the astonished recognition that reading sometimes grants - an understanding."

Such men and women will always be with us. But the health of a culture is measured by the many, not the few. The day America becomes a land divided into an aristocracy of readers and a proletariat of sitcom-watchers is the day the promise of democracy can be tossed onto the scrapheap of history.

Terry Teachout is the music critic of Commentary. He also writes the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, covers ballet and modern dance for the New York Daily News, reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and writes about jazz for the Wall Street Journal. He is finishing "H. L. Mencken: A Life," to be published next year by Simon & Schuster.

Pub Date: 10/20/96

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