A reader writes:
While listening to Dana Gioia speak on the recent survey on fiction
reading (and his take on what that means), an equivocating thought came
to me. I’ve been a pastor and teacher for 20 some years, working with
congregations and talking to students in colleges or Elderhostel/Life-Long Learner participants.
As you probably know, survey data on church attendance is far above
what a simple, real world check will reveal (65+% say they go to church
4 times a month or more on surveys, but a worship census shows it
simply can’t be above 40%, nearer 30%). Just in the last few years,
the annual Gallup surveys are noting a drop in those long standing
numbers, even as church attendance seems to be perking back up.
What we assume out here in Pastor-land, with a few sociologists of
religion riding shotgun, is that it used to be socially very important
to say you went to church…even if you didn’t. As it has become
much more acceptable in general discourse to admit freely that you
don’t go to church at all, let alone often, survey data is starting to
track closer to reality.
My suspicion — which makes the problem no less, only different — is
that it is now socially much more acceptable to admit that you haven’t
read “War and Peace” or “To The Lighthouse” even among educated
company, while similarly there is less social value to claiming you
have…whether you’ve done so or not.
As a voracious reader of fiction, non-fiction, and lids of tea
packaging or stray receipts if that’s all there is to hand, I can
recall many occasions in high school and college where I realized, to
my thrilled horror, that Teacher X or Professor Y had not actually read
the book they were manglingly alluding to. Similar events in dinner
party/backyard conversation over the years made me realize that the
total number of unread books everyone has read is…wait, as you’ve
pointed out recently, David Lodge has already trod this ground full
But in the last 5-10 years, folks from freshmen students in classes to
my wife’s colleagues in academia are likely to say in response to
literary references “Haven’t read it,” in tones indicating they’re not
gonna, you can’t make ’em, and whatsittoya?
So my equivocating point is: has fiction reading really dropped off?
Can we correlate for some other variable (sales, library circulation)
to crossreference? And is it possible that the problem is that folks
don’t feel the need to fake having read or be seen as a reader of
fiction as a social value — and if so, I find it double intriguing
that such a loss of felt need to keep up such appearances fictionally
speaking correlated so well with worship attendance trends (or
classical music, fer that matter).
It seems an important distinction, and I don’t hear that the survey
response is picking up on the possibility.
As regular readers of “About Last Night” know, I’ve been asked not to comment on the activities of the National Endowment for the Arts–including its recently released survey of changing American reading habits–while my nomination to the National Council on the Arts awaits consideration by the Senate. But the questions this reader poses are so interesting and provocative that I wanted to pass them on anyway.
Any thoughts, OGIC?