Friday, January 04, 2008

Thank You, and a gift

I just want to say thanks to all of those who have responded -- in comments, in emails, on the phone, and in person -- to my rather sad end-of-the-year post, and who have said, in essence, Buck Up. Reading's not in decline... you've done so much already... a bookstore is worth waiting for... you'll do it someday... etc. You're all awesome.

Your enthusiasm and optimism, and your confidence in me, is like fuel to a fire. It's so good to have that encouragement -- better even than money. Aside from finally getting over a lingering stomachache I had over New Year's, your comments are the only thing to which I can attribute getting out of the blue funk I've been in. I'm excited again, and ready to roll up my sleeves.

I've just rediscovered an old favorite, Arts & Letters Daily, that great clearinghouse for the ideas being tossed about in the world, and I'm adding it to my Google homepage. Serendipitously enough, today there's a link to the British periodical New Statesman, and an article titled "Why life is good." I'd like to give it to you, as a gift, returning your own encouragement. It's only occasionally about the book stuff, but it is totally about the need for both optimism and working together. You can read the article for the supporting studies and statistics, but here are some excerpts for the jist:

People are not generally negative about their own lives... In contrast, we are unduly negative about the wider world. As a government adviser, I would bemoan what we in Whitehall called the perception gap. Time and again, opinion polls expose a dramatic disparity between what people say about their personal experiences and about the state of things in general.

While we apparently thrive in our own families of many shapes and forms, as social commentators we prefer to look back, misty-eyed, to the gendered certainties of our grandparents' generation.... What is true for families is true for neighbourhoods: we think ours is improving while community life is declining elsewhere. We tend to like the people we know from different ethnic backgrounds but are less sure about such people in general. We think our own prospects look OK but society is going to the dogs....

And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before.... When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago....

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience....

Today, there are signs of a yearning for new ways of working together. There is the growing interest in social and co-operative enterprise and the emergence of new forms of online collaboration... Despite the huge impersonal forces of the modern world, people are prepared not only to believe in a better future, but to work together to build it.

This is what we've got: in our indie bookstores, in our communities of readers. Ways of working together. The possibility of "self-actualization." An alternate story about the world. A good neighborhood. A better world.

(If you'd like more of that sort of thing, you might consider stopping by the bookstore to see Frances Moore Lappe on Monday night -- she's pretty compelling on that optimism and the working together stuff.)

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Reading habits, pre- and post- film age

Just when I needed a bit of cheering up about the ol' "decline of reading" hobbyhorse, my friend Mark sent me this great bit of opinion from John McWhorter's column in the New York Sun:

America in 1907 read more than most of us. But did America of 1907 read smarter than us? Transported back to America in 1907, would we savor a book culture less dumbed down than ours? Well, let's take a look at the bestselling fiction of 1907. All 10 were potboilers unknown today. The top seller was "The Lady of the Decoration" by one Frances Little. Others on the list included the likes of "The Port of Missing Men" and "Half a Rogue."

Sounds a lot like the mass market portion of the New York Times Bestseller list, eh? At least in paperback fiction we've got Atonement and Water For Elephants (which started out on the BookSense bestseller list, a compilation of sales just from indie bookstores, that tends to be decidedly more "literary" than the Times list, though it's not without its potboilers), and Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, pretty hard to dispute as a literary novel.

So despite this article in Commentary criticizing Maud Newton for thinking about books like movies, maybe the movies (and TV, and iPods, and other technologies) haven't dumbed down our reading tastes so very much. Regular folks have always loved and still love adventure and romance and escapism. I just finished the amazing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (review forthcoming), which isn't escapism but is about a "long underwear" comic literally called The Escapist (and makes a case for its poignancy and cultural impact despite its schlockiness). And I've spent a lot of time lately reading Agatha Christie. But there's possibly more room for the smart stuff to succeed now than there's ever been.

I wouldn't have minded living in an era when all the men wore hats. But I think now is a pretty good time to live for the literature.