Come to one of my book signings and 200 people might be in the crowd (or five people). Except for my de-facto bodyguard, maybe only a handful will be men. On a good night. Men don't read anymore. This is one of the most frightening of the many express-elevator-to-the-dark-ages changes that have happened to America in my lifetime. Of course there are outliers, on this blog for example, or the new head librarian in Seattle, a man who said he fell in love with libraries as a fourth grader. Men read technical manuals and comic books. But the well-read American male of the past is mostly gone. Although all Americans are reading less — one survey found that the typical citizen reads only four books a year and one in four reads none at all — men are the biggest drop outs. They account for only 20 percent of the fiction market.
I can't imagine living in this mental poverty. When I turned nine years old, one of the first things I did was get a card at the Phoenix Public Library (the earliest age one could qualify). Before that, the one pure joy of Kenilworth School was the well-stocked library. I grew up around readers and books. My great aunt had an especially impressive library, and it made up for otherwise dull visits to her acreage on Seventh Avenue. My childhood reading wasn't highbrow: I was especially entranced by C.B. Colby's military books (Our Space Age Navy, etc.). But I read. These included comic books, too, but by age ten or so, comics were boring (not so for people today). Books have taken me places I would otherwise never have visited, from Plato's Athens and hell with Dante, to the Battle of Berlin. Books changed my mind and made it changeable. I never intended to be a journalist or author. I just assumed that experience was one a well-rounded person should have. Books used to be sexy. Really desirable women expected well-read men, and reading to one's lover is a sensual delight.
No longer for most. Aside from the polls, anecdotal evidence comes my way constantly: My son doesn't read books...My husband never reads...I don't read books...Never did like books. Is it any wonder that this has accompanied our society's collapse into widespread anti-intellectualism and aggressive ignorance (because to understand that, one would have read, say, Richard Hofstadter).
Last year, a male editor wrote as essay blaming the publishing industry, saying that female-dominated editorial boards at publishers don't put out the kind of books men want to read. This provoked a spirited debate, but was mostly whistling past the graveyard. (I have been graced with two of the most distinguished female editors in the business and they never said, "Make chicks dig it.") Still, the phenomenon of chick-lit may conceal a collapse in widespread reading among women. If they're just reading The Secret Life of Bees and such, this is a problem. Every educated person should have a sound grounding in the Western canon. I read some books again every decade (E.g., The Republic, Moby Dick) because I gain fresh insights each time. Every person who votes should have packed away plenty of history, which written right can be as thrilling, suspenseful, hilarious and moving as any work of fiction. But this is not happening.
It is also new. My grandmother, a child of the frontier, never went to college. But into her eighties she could still quote the major English poets at length. She knew history and the Constitution in depth. And, like all American generations before her, she was a product of the King James Bible, which was not used as a political tract but as a "gateway drug" into literature and good writing. Lincoln was not a believer, until perhaps the latter stages of the Civil War, but he read and was heavily influenced by the Bible. The people who voted for Progressivism and the New Deal read newspapers and books. Among the most combat-hardened soldiers of the two world wars were novelists and poets. My parents' generation was perhaps the high-water mark of this broad literacy that the founding fathers knew was essential for self-governance. Now it's gone.
It died in our society's abandonment of the public schools, and the screwing around with curriculum in even good schools (and for this latter, liberals can shoulder some blame, too). When I was sixteen, I didn't want to read The Scarlet Letter. I wanted to watch girls in miniskirts. But Mr. Bradshaw made us read the damned book, because it was difficult, and when we mastered it we loved it, and had gained something more, some muscles in the brain and keys to new rooms in the soul. Today, teachers must "teach to the test" and normal boy behavior is something to be medicated early. Today many schools don't even have libraries.
It died in a specialization society, where the Renaissance woman is rare and the Renaissance man below the age of forty is nearly non-existent (as is the public intellectual). Now even the brightest are channeled into silos of the mind early. The lucky ones are software engineers or neurosurgeons. Others are financial hucksters or diesel mechanics. They know a great deal about their very narrow field, along with an enthusiasm here and there, extreme sports perferred. But they lack the knowledge of even a middle-brow polymath in the mid-20th century. At its worst, this "culture" merely places people into their Matrix pods as workers and "consumers." And something else has happened: We've become more narrow even outside of education. As a child, I gloried in rock fights, hiking and camping, trains, hot cars, sports, building model airplanes. That didn't somehow require that I have no interest in books.
It died with our electronic distractions. This baffles me: I spend my work day sitting before a computer screen; I need the tactile pleasure of a book when off-duty. I don't need my public library to have digital dazzle. But the damage was already well advanced, where thirty-year-old men were "reading" "graphic novels" (i.e. comic books) and living with their parents. Probably the first nail in the coffin was television, of which the average American watches 34 hours a week. And it died with the Southern-ization of our culture, where being "redneck" and "country" are high aspirations.
To be sure, some people are never going to be readers. We used to feel sorry for them. Now it's the norm. With the extreme right, it's a point of pride. Don't need no book-learnin' when Rush and Sean and Bill will tell you the truth. There's Bible-verse flash cards for knowin' God's plan, which is to vote Rick Perry. And the "well read" get their "news" from Web sites and tracts that toe a line of partisan half-truths and superstitions. Here we need a Truman Capote to provide the equivalent putdown of "that's not writing, that's typing." No wonder William F. Buckley, who spent his life trying to create an intellectual American conservatism to counter the marginal no-nothingism of reaction, died disillusioned.
How a nation with a majority of simpletons faces the most complex dangers in history will be tragedy and farce. I just wish we didn't have to live through it, too.