This is not a world held together by reading literature

Tim Parks, an author regularly contributing to the New York Review of Books, is protesting against the idea, often expressed by intellectuals about young people: “Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, Twilight, Harry Potter, whatever. So long as they are reading something there’s at least a chance that one day they’ll move on to something better.”

Parks says no research has been done to investigate whether this climbing on the ladder ever happens. His own experience, with students and his own children, tells him it isn’t true. I agree but for a different reason. Young readers have to be enabled to read contemporary literature, which is often not the case in their lives, in order to be able to enjoy older literature.

I have done some research for the Dutch Ministry of Culture on the promotion of reading in general and reading of books in particular. That took place at the end of the 1970’s. Results and conclusions might be different nowadays in Western Europe and the US but I don’t think so.

In those years the forms that clearly promoted reading in general and the reading of literature among 12-18 years old were for example the distribution among schools of a kind of huge boxes with the newest books (non-fiction and literature). The schools’ librairies in Germany, Holland, the UK a.o. contained mainly much older books. The young wanted to be tied in with works discussed in the media. This seems perfectly logical with me because literature is also bound to certain times and events. It is difficult for me to read Dutch literature published 150 years ago, if only because of the language used and the references I don’t understand at all without notes at the bottom of the page. It is more interesting for me to read a novel set in nowadays Congo than to read a translation, eighty years after first publication, of a novel by Najib Mahfouz set in the times of British rule in Egypt.

So, I would suggest that it is possible to go from contemporary literature to the older literature. Shakespeare cannot be read by 16-years or 36-years old nowadays without notes, hints, explanations, introductions. It could be understood by the high and the low coming to an outdoor stage or theater in Shakespeare’s own time, however, just as paintings on biblical themes could be much better understood then, because even illiterate people knew the stories and symbols, and the emotions that were supposed to be part of it.

In Rules for the Human Zoo, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk ridicules the notion that we are a society held together by reading literature – the bourgeois ideal of western civilization. We are held together by all kind of media: music, television, the internet, newspapers – AND literature. We should be astonished, he writes somewhere else, that human groups of several millions can be held together at all. Unfortunately, traditional education often goes against being together, opening up a war front between teachers and students.

One in five Dutch adults cannot read books or any long text, which is called functional illiteracy. They have trouble reading letters from the local government, are unable to read a simple contract. At the time of my research, one in five American kids left school at age twelve without being able to read. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim and his team did research to explain why this happened and clearly not the children were at fault but parents, teachers, the political system, publishers. Take a look at their book, On learning to read.

Thanks to the financial crisis caused by US banks the public library in my city has had to downsize, reduce its services and double the subscription fee. What remains immediately available in the literature section is one tenth of what students need. For most novels that could interest them, they have to pay three dollars to make a reservation. In Germany nowadays, there are waiting lists for some books in the universities that can last months. After a long period of opening up “elite culture” for those coming from low income groups, our leaders are now chasing back everybody to where he or she comes from, including the original novelist to his small patch of land – while in the past the public library in for example Amsterdam would buy some twenty copies of a new ‘hot’ novel and sigh: ‘Whatever quantity we buy, it is not enough’.

See also another blog on this website: The end of book reading is not the end of the world

This comment was published on the site of the New York Review of Books, see,



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