I do not have any rigorously-assembled and current statistics about what percentage of people read or how much and how often they do. I know I’ve read, sometime in the past, that the median American reads one book a year, which means that a huge portion read none. And of course this is their right.
To me the crisis of books is not that reading them has become a minority activity; to me, reading has always been a lonely activity. I know book stores stay open, although they are suffering terribly under Covid, and I know millions of people read. But tales of the decline of reading never strike me as surprising. I was a very bookish child and while my bookishness never kept me from being popular, books were looked at not with hostility but slightly askance, as an quirky hobby if not an outlandish one. Reading has just always been weird, and so when stories of reading’s decline bubble up I just always think, “yeah, of course.”
What gets me more is the sort of thing symbolized by the image above, I guess. It’s the erosion of reading itself due to the extravagances of “reading culture.” Here the image has eaten the act; the desire to be seen as someone who does something has come entirely unglued from doing the thing. There is a service called Blinkist that sells, quite explicitly, the ability to effectively lie that you’ve read a nonfiction book. That’s not my gloss on things, that’s their whole marketing pitch. This sort of thing would just be another brick in the wall of a world full of posers if not for the fact that there should be no such thing as reader culture. Liking to read is not the same as liking Star Wars or artisanal coffee. There are as many reading cultures as there are readers – indeed, as many reading cultures as there are books. Reading is the act of reading, and reading itself is affectively inert. What people want is for reading to become just another set of clumsy associations, something to be expressible with a few nice gifs on Tumblr.
I think of poor David Foster Wallace. The way that this author, now dead by suicide for over a decade, has become a stand-in for every kind of literary pretension there is – and, much more, for a certain kind of person, largely imagined. All human culture is becoming, with time, a set of markers for which groups we are a part of and, especially especially, which groups we are not. The only thing that matters anymore is association; we either are not the “litbro” at a party talking about Infinite Jest – a situation that I believe has literally never happened – or we are, and so we must dissolve our commitments and beliefs and experiences as readers down to glaring signals that we are the Right Kind of Person, and certainly not one of THOSE. This is human culture now: the white-knuckled avoidance of being seen as an archetype that has been written about in some shitty “culture” website.
Of course, the vast majority of times that David Foster Wallace is now invoked as a trope, no one involved has read him; people will tweet, using DFW as a convenient symbol for the kind of person they don’t want to be, and hundreds of people will like the tweet, and not one of them will have read Infinite Jest. I don’t like Infinite Jest and I don’t like David Foster Wallace (the brand) or David Foster Wallace (the actual writer) and I know this because I fucking read it. The lit bro does not exist and has never existed. People don’t read; they don’t read 1000 page long experimental novels; and they really don’t if they’re bros. Only the signaling remains.
What do we do, those of us who are opposed to the occupation of reader becoming just another bit of culture war bric a brac that orients someone among their social and cultural peers/competitors? That tide cannot be opposed. The manic competition among the overeducated coastal striving classes, the great post-collegiate game of being a better class of person than all those ridiculed archetypes out there, can’t be stopped. The people who write our culture are far too consumed by that need to show each other how cool and insouciant and fuckable they are. They’ll never give it up.
Here I advocate the Eremitic option. Just read. Read alone. Read as a cure for loneliness and read as a way to generate it. Read and any stray desire to make reading a part of your personal brand will become trivial in comparison to the reading. It’s lonely work, and contra Alan Jacobs and Austin Kleon, sometimes it is meant to be work. But it’s also, of course, one of the most basic pleasures that exists, and while our electronics may be rewiring our species to pursue only the most immediate rewards, for now the pleasure’s still there. Make of it what you can while you can.