The Dukes of Hazzard: Champions of Literacy?

Despite the Guardian‘s headline (“Has the novel been murdered by the mob?“) National Book Critics Circle president John Freeman isn’t pondering who killed the novel as much as he is pondering what killed the audience. The answer? Good TV shows. He makes some valid points, although it seems that only a few years ago, BookPeople ™ were always complaining about how bad TV shows were. Now that there are a bunch of good shows, we’re supposed to wish they were bad again so that people will turn once more to reading? Too late for that. If TV shows get bad again, people will just play more video games.

I agree with him more when he’s talking about the multiple factors that have collaborated to keep people from reading for fun. The TV/PC screen may be the most obvious rival for the eye’s attention, but at root the problem is lifestyle changes that, I think, stem from the ascendancy of the corporation as a world power.

As he puts it:

In truth, the novel has been whacked by a number of things, starting with the decline of public education, where standardised tests stand in for cultural (and actual) literacy. Also in America, to a far greater degree than in Britain, the corporation and the language of advertising reigns supreme. To buy or not to buy, that is the question that defines these people’s outlook on the world, and so far only George Saunders and David Foster Wallace have adequately described the way this framework is murdering our language. It is a syntax, as Wallace put it in his 1996 Infinite Jest, geared around what “all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase”.

Finally, there is the larger issue of the screen in its many incarnations. More and more Americans spend their day waking up, checking their email, travelling to work, clicking through their Blackberries, sitting at cubicles, staring into a monitor, and the coming home, to look – once again – at a screen: the television. The eye has been trained to scan, and to receive, and less and less to read.

 

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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