Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to quote E.E Cummings without Wi-Fi. And the demographic of those who once could was all-inclusive — you could hear the emotive sound waves of “Since Feeling is First” bouncing against the shielded walls of domesticity, encircling the suburban cosmos. People read books to get away. This was pre-Evernote, pre-Amazon prime — a world where dictionaries were Bibles and Bibles were actually read.
There have been thousands of articles written about this topic, many of which start with “You Won’t Believe” — hackneyed marches against the brewing terrors of technology, the smartphone generation and the dangerous existential effects of immediacy.
Somewhere within the line of fire, books took their stance, a symptom to a larger problem. A problem that has less to do with the so-called nefarious machines and much more to do with the people who hold the patents.
English professor Ryan Hatch has a few theories of his own.
“I don’t feel we have like a strong discourse of literature as a mode of resistance anymore,” he said. “I feel like when I was in college, it wasn’t even a question that me and my friends were constantly reading, all the time — non-stop.”
Hatch always saw literature as a means for which to derive true, impenetrable freedom of thought.
“The thing that surprises me most about reading today, at the college level — I cannot believe how many adult men and women read books that were written to be read by 10-year-olds.”
Hatch describes this new phenomenon as a sort of reach toward endless adolescence — and what he calls, a culture of infinite repetition.
“When you’re five years old, you want to hear the story again, and Mom says, ‘I’ve already told you that story’ — well you want to hear it because it’s repetition,” Hatch said. “I think we like to think we’re a culture of constant innovation and expansion, but really — I think we’re a culture of infinite repetition.”
At the collegiate level, infinite repetition no longer manifests itself within the confines of glow-in-the-dark walls or imaginative dollhouses — but its effect is just as clear. We’ve grown accustomed to the melodrama of the millennial age. We’re slaves to the vices of our browsing history or our favorite reality television. Black Friday is soon becoming our most respected holiday.
“I grew up as a young, gay kid in the suburbs of Detroit — in a very conformist context, and it was made very clear to me that I did not fit the bill for the world that I was about to inherit,” Hatch said. “So reading James Joyce gave me the language to tell the world to ‘fuck off.’”
In terms of literary work, the question isn’t even about high-brow or low-brow, Hatch said. It has everything to do with the way in which we’ve lost the original reading experience, the experience of truly losing your bearings — the kind of intellectual stamina that drove David Foster Wallace to write an 1079-page novel, complete with 388 endnotes — a true zeitgeist of hysterical realism.
“I just don’t believe that ‘The Hunger Games’ is giving young people language to tell the world to fuck off,” Hatch said. “I think it’s giving people a fantasy of resistance and heroism that actually helps them to swallow the servility to the larger cultural norms and demands.”
We see this kind of servility creep around almost everywhere, Hatch said. Power doesn’t work by repressing us anymore — it works by forcing us to enjoy ourselves, all the time.
In consequence, Hatch said, we’ve never been more bored, and a lot of that has to do with reading less and therefore less serving that practice of freedom, the original mode of resistance. What’s different now, he explained, is the emerging idea that literature (of any kind) should be entertaining, consumable — and the shift lies within the detritus of the Internet age.
“In the era of novels that are written with the certainty that they will be made into action films, we’ve been given high-fructose corn syrup narratives, that are so easily consumed and metabolized that when I give you a work of modernist fiction, you’re bored,” Hatch said.
Bored, he said, just means you don’t want to do work. Boredom is to do with the subject, and never the object.
“Reading is an active thing — and that’s the problem,” Hatch said. “Reading is work, but it’s a form of work that comes with a pleasure that you can’t get unless you work. That’s the thing I wish I saw happen more on campus — a desire for that kind of intellectual work.”
But some students say academia alone is that kind of intellectual work.
Business administration sophomore Stephanie Chin, who once was a voracious reader, said she hasn’t been reading “for fun” in college.
“There’s just no time,” Chin said. “I think college is just so busy — in high school, I would go home and that’s it, I could read. But in college, I go home — and home is with my roommates who always want to do something.”
According to business administration sophomore Julia Burge, almost everyone she knows doesn’t read.
“I feel like people that read are way smarter,” she said.
And beyond the demand of collegiate education, Burge and Chin both note the rarity of contemporary reading as an art form partly does lie, ironically enough, within the expanding access to technology; the other part being our newfound conception of the modern person. Reading, for some reason, is no longer as important to us.
“Most people don’t ever read,” Chin said. “And, yeah, I mean you could Netflix, or pick up a book — but when was the last time you felt like looking for a book?”
Low and behold, the crux, perhaps, of modern living in and of itself.
But it’s not technology that’s killing the book — we’re killing the book, Hatch said. The idea of not wanting to expend energy to read a book is a concept so foreign, and it’s only growing, he said.
“People are clutching their careers, their paid internships, their entry level positions I get it,” Hatch said. “But I feel like that doesn’t mean you can’t engage in larger conversations about what’s happening in politics, and certainly doesn’t mean you can’t read a 200-page book.”