Two weeks ago my Advanced Creative Writing students and I went to the Graywolf Literary Gala in Minneapolis to hear authors Eula Biss, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, and Danez Smith speak and to rub elbows with the staff and friends of one of the best independent presses in America. (Luckily, we got discount tickets.) Our friend Benjamin Percy (whose great craft book Thrill Me we read in class) gave us an inside tip on what all the world now knows. (Congratulations, Ben!) We scored free Graywolf titles (including books by each of the featured authors, divvied up in the van on the way home) and fancy cheeses and bite-size desserts. We talked with current Graywolf interns and Development Director Josh Ostergaard. We strategized. And, in conversation with Graywolf Director and Publisher Fiona McCrae about his Nordic Studies major at Luther, student Levi Bird was invited to explore the opportunity of being a manuscript reader, helping the press sort their increasing number of submissions from Scandinavian authors. To mangle a line from William Faulkner that Patricia Lockwood mangles more successfully, I know aspiring writers who’d murder their grandmothers for a shot like this.
This morning, Ms. McCrae—writing from the Frankfurt Book Fair—replied to Levi’s email to introduce him to the staff members at Graywolf who can set him up with this amazing opportunity. I couldn’t be prouder of Levi and of the many, many other students I have the privilege of mentoring and teaching who are so eager to connect with the world and so engaged in wrestling with ideas and meaning and the big questions of what we’re doing here and why. And this afternoon, with two creative writing classes in a row, we experienced the world-bending power of two very different stories that rocked my own undergraduate-creative-writing life: James Joyce’s “Araby” and Denis Johnson’s “Work.” Now more than thirty students under my care are writing stories of their own. And so many more have stories in their notebooks I’ll never see. All of this helped soothe—but never quiet—the persistent drumbeat of doubt in my own head: do books still matter? What, exactly, do I think I’m doing here?
Last week, a bright Paideia student said, regretfully, “Dr. Weldon, my generation just doesn’t read books anymore.” I was surprised, and saddened, and saddened by the thing in me that was not at all surprised. Despite the continued presence of small presses and MFA programs and ordinary people who love words, like the students I work with every day, this is not a readerly time. Dismal confirmation of the half-suspected: in this nineteen-year-old century of hyper- (or is that cyber-?) idiocy, that seems to be my angle of vision on everything I care about from climate crisis to politics by and for adults to the privacy of words on a page. In pushing my students to be intellectually honest, I push myself in that direction too. So I have to admit: it doesn’t always look so great for the book and for the particular textures of humanity books preserve and represent. But then, in true Paideia fashion, I have to ask why? And what’s my responsibility, then?
First, some starting principles. Please don’t say that being able to “read” the screen-based image-swirl around us now is “just as good” as reading printed words on a page. Sorry, but it’s not. If it’s true that, in the words of the Gospel of Matthew, “by their works ye shall know them,” take a look at the fruits of our under-read world. Check the rise of social-media-reinforced credulity among ostensible grownups all over the world—from anti-vaxxers to climate-deniers to Oval-Office-rage-tweeters—and the rise in naive historical analogies as the basis for political disasters and the decline in students’ college readiness, which ipad-for-every-kid clichés of “relevance” in K-12 still don’t counteract. Talk to a student who admits to never having read a book all the way through before coming to college, and now feels as if they’ve not only been cheated but been conned into cheating themselves. Ask a classroom full of first-year students, every one of whom has a smartphone, “who’s Greta Thunberg?” and wait, increasingly aghast, for a response. Pay attention to your own lingering solastalgia, which is defined in environmental-writing world as nostalgia for beloved places and modes of being that are vanishing right before our eyes because we have failed to value and love them enough—a failure which began with our failure to name their value to ourselves. You’ll feel what I feel. And it’s not a feeling that can, or should, be ignored.
Yes, multiple literacies are a thing, and are valuable. Yes, as Gerald Graff argues, we need both street smarts and book smarts. But my point is just this: you lose a lot once you lose the ability, as individuals and societies, to be at home in a book. The fake companionship of social media leaves you stranded in an anxious present, contextless. And slowly, almost unnoticeably, it sucks away the ability to sense and respond to nuance in text on pages, from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (my longtime Paideia staple) to your first mortgage contract. It exacerbates existing economic and social inequities, since language (esp in early childhood) proceeds along the principle of the “Matthew effect”—from those who have little, even more shall be taken, and vice versa. (I wrote about this in Ch. 2 of my book The Writer’s Eye.) Language deficits make more language deficits which feed deficits of other kinds: you don’t, so you can’t, so you don’t, so you can’t, in the same downward spiral that happens when you keep missing your workout. The brain, and the language-brain, are muscles too.
Reading books helps you learn to read the layers of meaning and history that make up your world right now. A book is made by and for humans to unfold information in layers over time at a human scale, building selves as gently and definably as a number of pages that grows on your left hand, turning, turning, adding up. By contrast, as Jaron Lanier so cogently argues, the Internet in general and social media in particular is made by corporations for profit. If you can’t “read” your world—on and off the page—you will be worked by those who can. Frederick Douglass knew this when he fought like hell to learn to read, resisting the ignorance in which enslaved people were deliberately kept. Harriet Jacobs knew this when she took the almost incalculable risk of publishing her memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), even though she had to change names to keep those who helped her escape to freedom from being arrested. Words on a page make you intelligible to others, and to yourself. That’s why we read Douglass and Jacobs and Orwell and Hurston and Dante and Shakespeare and Jingfang and Shelley and Fugard and so many others in Paideia today. That’s why creative writing students and I read everyone from Flannery O’Connor to Tobias Wolff to James Baldwin and the most recent issues of literary journals like The Common, which I teach in Advanced Creative Writing. And—as this heartbreaking, unforgettable, and urgent testimony from jailed Turkish writer Ahmet Altan reminds us, again—that’s why books become companions through even the most difficult times we may know.
So I’m continuing on as countercultural, fully aware of the enduring pleasures and the increasing risks of writing in an increasingly bookless world. Or is it as bookless a world as it sometimes seems? Well, it damn sure will be if those of us who love books give up on them, and stop trying to teach even if we increasingly do have to “teach”—the habits of mind and heart that make readers. I’ve got three books meaningfully underway right now: Creature: A Novel of Mary Shelley; an advanced-fiction writing textbook and anthology under proposal to Bloomsbury featuring the work and words of some of my students, and An Awful Rainbow: Reading the Romantics in a World on Fire, in which I lift up the lives and liveliness of my favorite writers for our own times. Like any writer, I wonder sometimes if my words are making any difference, if anyone’s reading at all. But then I remember the faces of my students—handing in their first poems, discovering the beauty in James Joyce’s “Araby” just as I did in my own creative writing class, savoring language that just is. And I vow to keep on, word by word. The alternative is literally unthinkable.