The great critic George Steiner was already remarking (to paraphrase) by the mid-sixties, that mass culture had diminished and deeply impoverished our sense of what it means to be literate. Steiner’s critique, his insight, into the relationship between literacy and media culture has become increasingly relevant with time, and increasingly depressing–for anyone who still cherishes the humanistic ideal, as I do. A literary culture, Steiner’s line goes, that reads its Proust or Rilke or Shakespeare or Plato or Kafka is fundamentally different (and normatively preferable) to a literary culture whose sense of language is derived from fantasy novels (wizards, vampires, dwarves et al), sports commentary, and pop-culture writing (blogs or print). It is a mistake to assume that because technically and materially and politically our society has advanced immensely in the last 100 years or so, that those who have the access to literacy and education have become better readers–the opposite, indeed, may be true: that for every step further into modernity, we take a back in our fundamental ability to comprehend a text. This has nothing to do with the cognitive effects of television or the internet, or the social question of access to education, but rather with our sense of what is possible when people do have access to education (and presumably, therefore, literacy) in the context in which media like the internet exist. Being literate at one time may have meant the possibility of reading Shakespeare or the equally rich English of the King James Bible, and at another time it may have meant reading Joyce or Fitzgerald or Woolf–but it always implied a certain familiarity with books of tremendous prolixity, innovation, and depth of thought. In different times and places in Western culture the level of general culture has waxed and waned–America in the eyes of Europe has always been more concerned with the quality of its ad copy rather than its novels–but my sense is that now, the entire spectrum has been shifted downwards, and that was once an acceptably high level of literacy and literary comprehension is simply off the scale in the area labeled “snobbish elitism”. TV culture, pop-culture, internet culture, celebrity culture–whatever you want to call–has so fixed itself as the mean standard of language, that a culture where Ulysses or The Trial or Tractatus are difficult but not impossible challenges seems itself a cultural impossibility. The density and compression of great literature and thought are now so far from the mainstream that, fundamentally, literary language is becoming–at least functionally–a language totally separate from the language we speak. To the average American who uses under 50 different words to communicate via text, and probably only slightly more via email, the lyrical and verbal exuberance of almost any poet or novelist or essayist must seem foreign and incomprehensible.
The social and spiritual effects of this cannot be understated: the way in which we imagine ourselves, and the ways in which we articulate those selves to others, by proxy of this linguistic deadening, is infantilized and retarded. The difficulty of constructing meaning for ourselves or meaningful relationships with others, is increased by the manifold cliches and truisms that come down to us from popculture speech. The limits of our world–the limits of our thought–are perhaps are determined by our language, but our language in turn, is determined by our environment. Realistically, the further we reduce not only our literal vocabularies, but the lexicon of our ideas and sensations, the more those limits move in on us. When I write that our level of literacy is falling, this is precisely what I mean–that we read with less and less compound depth of perception and feeling. That access to the full richness of a work–access that comes from grasping the text’s style, technical ambition, and allusion–is impossible if our reading can only resonate with Mad Men and Grimes. As much as again, this could be dismissed as snobbery or elitism, my concern is much more practical–that in a basic sense, we know less stuff, and have experienced a diminished range of human expression and feeling.
We have to begin to assume that this diminishment, this loss of range, will only really get worse–we have to prepare (that is we who are ourselves cultural anachronisms) for the post-literacy age; the age when literacy means being able to communicate in the most minimal, functional sense possible, and when being able to use language to express the full range of personalities, communities, and place in time, is impossible. The great test of this, may be whether our generation of young people, and future generations, will be able to walk into a used bookstore, and without anyone telling them what to read, find for themselves a book of lasting relevance. You can always tell a good reader by how assured they are in finding what to read next–surely one great book always opens the path to the very next. If we cease to be a culture in which we can read and comprehend even a single great work of literature, we lose, presumably, the ability to find the next.