The Death of the Reader


Back in the late ’60s, Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author.” His essay is a fairly important philosophical declaration concerning the way we think and construct our world, but it’s also fairly boring, so I’ll not devote much space here to discussing it. To summarize it badly in two sentences, it goes something like this: writers — to whom we usually grant a god-like status when it comes to determining what their text actually “means” — no longer determine what their text actually means; that job belongs to readers. So there you have it: the author, for all interpretive purposes, is dead.

Apparently, readers didn’t want the task that Barthes was handing them. According to this article from the Associated Press, a solid 25% of U.S. adults didn’t read a single book last year.

This article, which is, ironically enough, very poorly written, fascinated me when I read it. It initially makes it sound as though we are an illiterate nation — full of people who don’t read unless they have a hammer at their heads. But what the article lacks is much of a historical perspective. Other than citing some statistics from the ’90s, it doesn’t tell us how many U.S. adults read how many books in, say, 1950. A really quick google search didn’t turn up anything on how many adults didn’t read a single book in the ’50s. My gut tells me it was more than 25%, though. Feel free to argue with me on that, because honest, I have no idea.

The reason this article caught my eye is that this type of article seems to come out every few months — something about the deplorable state of our reading or writing habits. And the articles annoy me not because of their untruth (because I don’t know that they are untrue) but because of the implied message: we used to be smarter. (At least that’s the message I imply onto the text, which, according to Barthes, is my right!) It implies that reading has some sort of inherent value over whatever else a person decides to do with their time. It seems to imply that the person who reads is somehow a better person that someone who watches television.

As much as I like reading, this message annoys me.

Here’s what I’m actually reading right now. Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon. The Mysteries of Pittsburg, by Michael Chabon. (I’m on a Chabon kick — he’s good.) The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander. All three of those are wonderful books. The Castle in the Forest, by Norman Mailer. Which is horrible but somehow interesting at the same time.

Happy Friday, everyone. 


29 Responses to “The Death of the Reader”

  1. alsturgeon Says:

    Hey, hey, Mikey, welcome to hippo world!!!!!!!

    You’re too cool. A writing/English professor who doesn’t jump on the “people who don’t read are stupid” bandwagon. I like you. And as a preacher, I hope to follow in your footsteps.

    People who don’t read aren’t stupid. There, I said it. 🙂

    (Wait, did I just use a double negative?)

    I’m reading (or, have been meaning to keep reading) “Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church” by D.A. Carson, which I’m finding fairly boring, thus my lack of motivation to keep reading. And “Letters to Anna,” sent to me by our very own Captain MidKnight (the esteemed author of the book). Well, I haven’t started reading it yet, but it is on my nightstand for the purpose of reading.

  2. urbino Says:

    Frankly, I’m tickled that it’s only 25%. I would’ve thought it was a good deal higher than that.

    I think there’s something to the “readers are smarter than tv watchers” thing, but not quite what it seems. I’ll try to explain myself in 500 words or less. The short version is: it entirely depends on what the person is reading or watching, and most readers tend to read better stuff than most watchers tend to watch.

    I had my cable tv disconnected back in the early spring. That means that for the first time in I don’t know when, I’ve actually watched a little broadcast network tv. It wasn’t a good experience.

    It’s absolute dreck. Sit through an entire episode of any of the “CSI” series, for example, and your brain shrinks by 10%. I mean they’re just awful. I genuinely believe they will make you stupid if you watch them enough. No kidding. And the rest of network tv that I sampled wasn’t much better.

    That said, there is some really good stuff elsewhere on tv. Well written, thought provoking stuff. Both fictional and non. But there’s a lot less of it and it’s harder to find. My guess is the imbecility-inducing stuff gets watched much more.

    People who take the trouble to read, however, probably tend to take the trouble to read something smarter. I mean, otherwise, why not just watch it on tv, which is a much easier medium to absorb.

    That’s not to say there’s not a lot of dreck in the book world, too. There is. And a lot of it is wildly popular. But still, all in all, my guess is that the content of all the reader-hours of reading is better than the content of all the watcher-hours of tv watching, and therefore the average reader ends up somewhat more thoughtful and well-informed than the average watcher.

  3. urbino Says:

    BTW, I thought the Mailer book was terrific. What put you off?

  4. michaellasley Says:

    That’s a good point, JU — about readers typcially choosing things to improve their minds. The problem — and I realize you were in no way saying this — but the problem with that is when people associate moral value with well-informed-ness. Or to state that more clearly, I think it’s a problem when we assume that people who read more, who try to be better informed or try to improve their minds, are somehow better people than those who’d rather watch mindless television.

    As usual, I make no sense.

    As for Mailer…..I like the idea of the book: One of Satan’s little helpers giving us the biography of Hitler, for those of you who don’t know the idea of the book. And that idea keeps me interested. And every few pages something genuinely interesting happens. I just don’t think it’s overly enjoyable to read, for whatever reason. Partly it’s that the narrator gets on my nerves. Partly it’s just the story. And partly it’s just that I don’t really like Mailer’s style of writing.

  5. alsturgeon Says:

    You make sense to me, Mikey. Which worries me.

  6. urbino Says:

    He does have a very distinctive style, and I suspect this book would be the only one of his I’d like. Cormac McCarthy is that way. His Blood Meridian is one of my all-time favorite novels, but his style is just so odd, I haven’t been able to get into his other books.

  7. urbino Says:

    I think it’s a problem when we assume that people who read more, who try to be better informed or try to improve their minds, are somehow better people than those who’d rather watch mindless television.

    Aren’t they? (Serious question.)

  8. michaellasley Says:

    JU: I don’t think so. Some of the smartest people I know are not people I go out of my way to be around — they possess traits I think of as very bad (i.e., some are genuinely unkind, some are extremely self-centered, some are very materialistic, some are judgmental). They might try to improve their minds, but they don’t really improve as people. And the opposite is true for some of the people I know who likely didn’t read a single book this past year — they go out of their way to help anyone, even someone they might not like; they aren’t self-centered; etc.

    (And the flip of that is true as well: I know a lot of brilliant people who I admire for what I see as living great lives; I know a few couch potatoes who possess very few “good” qualities.)

    I’m not trying to glorify ignorance. As an educator and an avid reader, I think it is important for people to try to improve their minds. I guess I just get annoyed when we automatically apply moral value to intellect.

  9. michaellasley Says:

    It should worry you, Al. A lot. You might want to do a bit of soul-searching.

  10. michaellasley Says:

    JU: I agree about Mailer. I loved The Naked and the Dead. I wasn’t nearly so happy about Executioner’s Song, which everyone seemed to love. I’ve read bits of other things he’s written, and I just don’t seem to enjoy his writing very much. But I liked the premise of this one enough to buy it.

    I’ve never read Blood Meridian. I’ve read a couple of other McCarthy books. He does have an odd style and his dialogue is a bit annoying at times, but I’ve enjoyed them nonetheless.

  11. alsturgeon Says:

    Nah, I’d rather just enjoy understanding your points.

  12. urbino Says:

    I see your point, Mikey. I didn’t mean to suggest people who “try to be better informed or try to improve their minds” are, thereby, all other things disregarded, better people than “those who’d rather watch mindless television.”

    I was sort of assuming an “all other things being equal” in there. I think trying to be better informed and improve one’s mind is a morally superior choice to just watching mindless television. It’s a choice that, in itself, does have moral value.

    N’est-ce pas?

  13. michaellasley Says:

    I understand what you’re saying, and I kind of agree. Sometimes. I go back and forth on it. Just from personal experience: I don’t think I’m a better or worse person today because I’ve spent the last few years reading fairly intensively. I’m better informed, probably smarter, but I don’t think I’m necessarily a better person or citizen because of it.

    I’m honestly not always sure why it would be a morally superior choice to read than to watch mindless television. If reading and being better informed influences or changes the way you move through the world, then yes. But I really don’t think that happens too often. And it’s hard for me to judge that distinction since I would much rather read than watch television. So it’s easy for me to dismiss the choice to watch mindless television as less noble than reading, since it’s something that I’m not tempted to watch.

  14. alsturgeon Says:

    Interesting discussion.

    Let me throw this out there, though: from a Jesus-disciple perspective, I’ve got to side with reading over mindless television. I can see him spending time doing the former (not all the time, mind you, but time), yet I can’t see him doing much of the latter.

    Yet I agree with Mikey overall – not a more “moral” choice in the general sense of the word, but from someone who gets up each Sunday and challenges people to follow after Jesus, given the choice of the two, I’d have to urge my folks to choose reading.

    Now I’m not making sense. Thanks, Mikey.

  15. DeJon Says:

    Gents, fine community you’ve got here. I hope you don’t mind if I throw in an opinion.

    Your discussion has me recalling a million conversations I’ve held over the past year relating to mass media, the illiterate masses, sociological vs. the psychological paradigm in the study of mass media effects… And while most of that stuff makes me want to throw up due to excessive ingestion, your framing of the issue piques my interest.

    Marshall McLuhan had in interesting way of defining the difference between media. He called television a “cool” medium because it forced the individual to engage. He called the print medium “hot” because it forced the used to rely on one sense (sight) excessively. But to be honest I find McLuhan to be hard to follow and, at times, utter hogwash.

    Another point that seems relevant to the discussion is the concept of the knowledge gained through mass media. It seems the good Professor argues that the novel (or books in general) do not provide the magical dividends that the elite media consumers suggest they do. And JU seems to sense a reverse matriculation of knowledge when he engages television (CSI, particularly). I recently found myself intrigued by this idea of knowledge acquisition as it was framed (primarily) by two mass comm. Researchers (Olien and Tichenor) in their “Knowledge Gap Hypothesis.”

    The reason I fancied the knowledge gap hypothesis was its overt implications in the realm of social justice (which I suspect will intrigue Al.) The researchers studied how individuals acquire knowledge and found a statistically significant disparity between socio-economic classes. They hypothesized that the upper-class have more knowledge (and by extension are “better citizens”) than the po’ folks. What I find interesting is the myriad of caveats, addendums, and re-definitions the hypothesis has absorbed in the more than 40 years since Olien and his sidekick first expressed the idea.

    For instance, the knowledge is often reversed when the researchers measured different kinds of knowledge. Sure the guy that lives in the ghetto is probably not reading The Economist (annual subscription costs are almost $100/yr). But it likely he knows his way around the unemployment line. Whereas the guy driving the Lexus may know more about Obama’s political platform or the current Dow Jones Index, but it’s a good bet he has no idea how to acquire food stamps or other government subsidies.

    Further, researchers found that the gap in a societal segment’s knowledge can actually prove to be a reverse knowledge gap when the issue is of particular importance to that segment. For instance, if a poor part of town is stricken with an inordinate number of infant deaths and the cause is found to be in the neighborhood’s tap water, the citizens effected will likely be interested in this news story. However, the rich snobs unaffected by this news story may not attend the meetings at city hall or write to their city councilperson the way the poor, affected citizens might. In this type of situation, researchers have found places where the lower socioeconomic classes are more highly informed than the rich folks.

    So does reading books, listening to NPR, and watching Jim Lehrer make me a better person? Probably not. But it will likely make you a better citizen, more informed, and less likely to be duped by the oft-times felonious reporting that comes across various “news” outlets.

  16. DeJon Says:

    I also wondered if Michael really finds Barthes to be boring.

    I took a Speech-Act Theory class last semester where we danced all around the death-of-the-author discussion. I love the idea because it gives me a starting point for my fledgling understanding of post-modernism.

    My new favorite painting… Foucault. “This is not a pipe.” (

    It’s a great idea, “the death of the author” but it assumes there’s an engaged and participatory audience out there receiving the message.

    Is this Yahoo! (article) saying that engaged audience no longer exists? To that idea I say bullcorn. But I don’t doubt that the message senders are beating up the recipients more so than ever before.

    McLuhan first said “the medium is the message.” But I really identify with another of his pithy statements.

    “The medium is the massage.” Meaning the illiterate media consumers are getting there brains beat in and they don’t even realize it.

  17. michaellasley Says:

    Great stuff, DeJon. I need to read those studies you mention. I agree that knowledge gained from whatever source can make one a better citizen if people engage it. I just think that the case is often-times overstated when it comes to high-brow art type stuff. I’m not saying there is no value in it. I just think the case is overstated.

    The article I linked to didn’t talk about how texts are engaged. It was mostly just saying that not many people read. And I thought there was the implication in it that people have traditionally read more.

    Barthes is okay. He’s definitely influential, especially in the realm of postmodernism. But his arguments are tedious at times, and I have a short attention span. Not the theorist I enjoy reading the most.

    Al — I agree with your point. And I do think it’s important to try to know as much about the world we live in, to stretch the way we think. I’m definitely not advocating everyone becoming inanimate consumers of mind-numbing entertainment. I’m really just curious as to why we place Literature or Reading or higher-brow entertainment on morally higher ground. We seem to grant it an automatic superiority, and I’m not sure why.

    Maybe it is superior. I posted earlier that I go back and forth on it, so I’m not hell-bent of saying it isn’t. Just kind of questioning.

    And you’re welcome, Al. I’m surprised you can think at all after having spent a few days around me earlier in the summer.

  18. urbino Says:

    Wow, DeJon. You just added a lot of new variables to the mix.

    I didn’t intend my statement about the value of seeking knowledge vs. watching television to have a class component. (If, with all this Barthes flying around, my authorial intent matters.) It need not. For example, NPR and Jim Lehrer are 100% free, and the local library darn near it.

    The research you cite rings true to me. People of differing classes have different interests at stake, and therefore there will be differences in knowledge of the kind you describe. Still, it strikes me as unlikely that the poor learn, e.g., how to navigate the welfare state from watching tv.

    My point is more that seeking knowledge evinces an interest in things larger than oneself that “watching mindless tv” does not. All other things being equal, I think the former person has made a morally superior choice to the latter’s.

    Unlike some “elite media consumers,” I don’t posit any “magical dividends” from reading, per se. The distinction as Mikey made it was between a) people “who try to be better informed or try to improve their minds,” and b) “those who’d rather watch mindless television.” People who read nothing but dreck — the print equivalent of mindless television — aren’t trying to be better informed, etc. They’re just trying to be distracted, just like the mindless television watcher.

    To me, between those categories, A and B, there is a clear moral distinction. And, as a sociological observation, I think it’s probably accurate that, due to the differing demands of the 2 media, more reader-hours than watcher-hours are spent in category A. That adds up to a net moral win for readers.

  19. urbino Says:

    And I thought there was the implication in it that people have traditionally read more.

    I’m with you on this one. I haven’t seen any numbers indicating people used to read more in, say, the 1950s. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist; I just haven’t seen any.

    Presumably people did read more before the advent of radio and tv, but I don’t know that for certain.

  20. michaellasley Says:

    Your intentions don’t matter! (Insert smiley face emoticon HERE.)

    JU said: “My point is more that seeking knowledge evinces an interest in things larger than oneself that “watching mindless tv” does not. All other things being equal, I think the former person has made a morally superior choice to the latter’s.”

    I can agree with that.

    I guess it mostly comes down to the intentions of the consumers. I just get a little pang in my tummy when big L Literature or big A Art is seen as having an inherent moral superiority, as though a particular book or whatever is in itself holy. (I don’t think you’re saying this, btw, I just think that is often the assumption that is made.)

    I wrote the post just because I hate it when we glorify a past that likely doesn’t exist (i.e., people used to read more).

  21. michaellasley Says:

    The class component is interesting. I might do some looking around and post something on that aspect sometime soon. Although, let’s be honest, I probably won’t.

  22. DeJon Says:

    Perhaps I muddied the waters a little jabbering on about the effects of mass media. I did read (or heavily skimmed) the Yahoo article, and it sounded like it was written by a guy lamenting the sales market for books. I bet our published friend Al has given more than cursory look at what books sell and who buys them.

    I guess I threw in those peripheral variables for my own selfish reasons. (And b/c I missed kicking the proverbial can around with you fellas.)

    JU, you do call me out on a particularly important point when you say, “it strikes me as unlikely that the poor learn, e.g., how to navigate the welfare state from watching tv.”

    But then where do they learn this stuff? Knowledge Gap does address social interaction as a source of knowledge (poor people talk to poor people and discuss these things…) But maybe they’re buying books on the subject, no?

    But from my own experience, as often as I watch tv to have Jon Stewart, Bill Moyers or (God forbid) Bill O’Reilly educate me, I also just want to vegetate with some guilty pleasure like VH1 reality (Mission: Man Band, anyone? No, I’m just kidding — not really.) In those cases I’m not learning anything. Or as you suggest, it is quite likely I’m becoming more ignorant. But I’ll leave leave mass comm’s “Uses & Gratifications Theory” alone for now.


  23. mrspeacock Says:

    Confession: I love America’s Next Top Model. And I don’t feel guilty. Here’s why…

    For starters, I watch it after coming home from a discussion on whatever book my Home Group is studying. Secondly, I’ve learned a lot. For instance, you should never live in a house with 12 hungry females. And lastly, it’s 40 minutes out of my entire week. What are the odds that, if I were not watching ANTM, I would instead be elevating my mind to superior levels of thinking? Slim to none, me thinks.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love reading, and I love learning. I would enroll myself as a permanent student if it would support my Starbucks habit. But, honestly, there’s room for both the brilliant novel and the mindless television show. I realize that’s not the point of this discussion, but I felt the need to state the obvious. I doubt any of us sit around all day pondering Heidegger. I mean, come on. Most of us are on Facebook.

    JU, I know you watch CSI for the David Caruso line of the week. Admit it!

  24. alsturgeon Says:

    Hey DeJon, I appreciate the citations that have involved me in this mix, but I’m lost as a goose in this brilliant conversation. To misquote Gomer Pyle, “I’m lost as a goose, but having the time of my life!”

    So keep it up, but don’t expect anything brilliant from me until the conversation descends a few notches.

    Unless, that is, Mrs. Peacock and I want to discuss America’s Next Top Model. I have seen a few episodes.

  25. urbino Says:

    (poor people talk to poor people and discuss these things…) But maybe they’re buying books on the subject, no?

    I realized some hours after I posted my comment that my tv remark might reasonably be taken to imply that, but that’s not what I intended. I seriously doubt the poor are buying (or otherwise reading) books on how to navigate social services, etc. It’s quite likely they’re reading some of the pamphlets, instructions, etc., put out by the various agencies they have to deal with, but still. ISTM much more likely that you hit the nail on the head in your parenthetical, above.

    But, honestly, there’s room for both the brilliant novel and the mindless television show.

    Agreed. And I think it’s grossly unfair! to call the girls on ANTM mindless. (Actually, I’ve never seen it. But I’ve seen Tyra Banks, and in my imagination she’s a brilliant conversationalist.)

    JU, I know you watch CSI for the David Caruso line of the week. Admit it!

    Ay, carumba! I haven’t seen that much over-coiffed pose striking since Madonna’s “Vogue” video. Somebody should enter him in the next Westminster Kennel Club show. He’d probably win Best of Breed (Irish Publicity Hound). And all while saving the girl, of course.

  26. unicorntx Says:

    Well, guys ‘n gals – I’ve been on vacation and have only skimmed the above entries – but having recently decided to (at least temporarily) kick my habit of reading “mindless detective fiction” and embark on a journey of more serious reading (however, still eschewing theology and anything on Iraq) – I began with biography (“auto” in this case) and picked up Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis.
    Now, can’t resist sharing something from page 331

    “Yes, yes, you might be Stuyvesant High School, says Mr Curran, and you might be the brightest kids from there to the foothills of the Rockies, your heads stuffed with science and mathematics, but all you need in this life is your Homer, your Sophocles, your Plato, your Aristotle, your Aristophenes for the lighter moments, your Virgil for the dark places, YOUR JUVENAL WHEN YOU’RE COMPLETELY PISSED OFF WITH THE WORLD.” (Caps mine)

    For what it’s worth – enjoyed ‘Tis so much, am now reading Teacher Man and will probably read Angela’s Ashes, which I originally resisted because everyone said, “Oh, it is so SAD!”

  27. michaellasley Says:

    I loved Angela’s Ashes. Lots and lots more than ‘Tis. ‘Tis is merely okay in comparison. There are some sad parts, yes, but I wouldn’t let that keep me from reading it.

  28. urbino Says:

    I never got around to ‘Tis, but I loved AA.

    Thanks for the shout out, Bruno, and welcome back. I’ve been known to be completely pissed off with the world. But I have my Aristophanes moments, too.

    Before you give up on detective fiction, try Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a Jewish Alaskan detective novel which also happens to not be mindless. I just finished it and it’s a terrific hoot.

  29. unicorntx Says:

    Micahel: Will probably hit AA this Labor Day weekend. Thanks for the push.

    JU. for you I will renege on my vow (principled person that I am!!) and take a look at your recommendation. Thanks.

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