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Monday, January 29, 2007

Unfashionable Reading

Mike Duran lives in Southern California with his wife Lisa and four grown children. Chosen as one of ten authors for Infuze Magazine’s 2005 print anthology, Mike’s short stories have also appeared in Forgotten Worlds, Alienskin, Dragons, Knights and Angels, as well as the forthcoming Winter Issue of Relief Journal. His non-fiction is featured in The Matthew’s House Project and Relevant Magazine Online, and Novel Journey. Mike has written an unpublished novel entitled What Faith Awakes and is currently at work on a second. You can peruse his weekly ruminations at

There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labor of thinking.
Thomas A. Edison

Quiz Show was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 1994, garnering four Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Robert Redford. The film, however, performed poorly at the box office and remains one of Redford ’s least successful titles. I recall reading an interview with the director in which he discussed the movie's mediocre draw. Redford suggested, among other things, that the film was too brainy for the average moviegoer and surmised, "It's risky to ask the audience to think."

Is that true? Is it risky to ask the audience to think?

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman posits that the medium of television has radically affected the most basic mental machinations. As entertainment has become a cultural force, public discourse is stilted; we no longer require stuff with substance -- as long as it's brief, sleek, polished or funny, it's watchable. Postman asserts that TV affects how we think; linear thought buckles under the barrage of images, our attention span wanes and we are, collectively, dumbed-down.
I was reminded of Postman's provocative book when I read
this quote by Zadie Smith found via Orange Crate Art:

But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, "I should sit here and I should be entertained." And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.

It's interesting that "the more classical model" of reading -- the idea that the reader should “work at a text” -- has become "unfashionable." Nowadays, we approach books as we do movies -- we want to be acted upon, rather than act. Among other things, the electronic age has heightened our expectations of a given media and lowered the requirements of participation. Thinking is out. Like a thrill park ride, we simply want to pay, get on board and be swept away; we want to surf channels and flip switches, be wowed and returned safely, without breaking a sweat. God forbid that we actually have to mine for the meaningful.

At one time, there was an unspoken vow between reader and writer, wherein the reader pledged to work hard and the writer guaranteed to make her. Alas, in our day, that vow is quite vintage. Not only have we produced a nation of the intellectually impaired, we have nurtured industries that appease our handicap. Trustees of that once sacred tradition (i.e., "the classical model") are now viewed as highbrow, academic snoots by the bored, thrill-seeking, literary-challenged offspring of the e-age. Why "work at a text" when the industry bigshots offer adrenaline injections?

The culture of "fast fix" entertainment creates a double-edged dilemma for the writer. For one, the drive to be heard amidst the media clamor can tempt us to short-cut literary depth in exchange for something more palatable, less substantial. If the kids want mac and cheese, we'll forgo the vegetables just to shut them up. Of course, it's later on down the road that their dietary deficiencies kick in.

In this sense, obesity and anemia have intellectual parallels. (Is this why there are less and less readers each year, and why theaters have replaced churches as the houses of the holy?)

It might be risky to ask the audience to think, but part of the author's calling must be to do so. I’m not suggesting we take the pop out of popular literature and eschew entertainment in favor of think pieces. Good writing need not be a chore to read -- nor must it be devoid of fireworks -- but at some point, the maturing adult must learn to use her molars.

It's been said that there's virtue in doing something hard simply because it is hard. Likewise, there is value in reading something dense simply because it is dense. This is the opposite edge. Not only must writers challenge readers, but readers should, as Ms. Smith puts it, "practice reading." Practicing anything can be tedium in the age of instant. But with microwave memoirs and fast-food fiction becoming status quo, I wonder that “practicing reading” will increasingly become more "unfashionable."


  1. Mike, great piece. You've heard my argument on this before. As a nurse, I get to accompany doctors who explain diagnosis to patients. More often than not the patient waits for the doctor to leave, turns to me and says, "What did he say?" It's the truly brilliant doctors, in my opiion, who are able to speak to people on their level. Not "dumb it down" necessarily but speak to people where they're at.

    I like to be challeged but not to the point where I'm needing a class just to understand a book. It is our jobs as writers not just to communicate, but to be heard and understood. To speak to people where they're at.

    I surround myself with bright people and almost never watch TV, so I'm not sure how intellectually anemic people are or aren't. When I gush about a book being insightful or life changing, everyone within ear shot seems to be writing down the title, which makes me think people want to be challenged.

  2. Mike, you always get us thinking. I do want to be challenged. My reading line-up includes, Faulkner, Dickens, and other such masterful writers. I'm excited about "working" my way through these and learning. At the same time, I enjoy a couple hours per week of mind-numbing television. I wonder about the reading future of the younger generations with all their video games, web-surfing, and TV/movies. I'm thankful that my home schooled girls are growing up with lots of good books and not so much TV.

  3. According to the latest Nielson stats, the average American now watches 4 hours and 35 minutes of TV a day. Call me a prude or a Neanderthal, but that seems like way too much. When my kids were young, once every couple of months we'd unplug the TV sets for a week -- a fast from television. Even more shocking than how little we missed it was the response of others. Americans just can't fathom not having television. Thanks for the comments, girls!

    Mike Duran

  4. With all the talk of how necessary a dramatic start to a novel is, I'm wondering where our faith has gone. I don't need a life-changing event to happen in the first chapter of a book. What I do need is to be shown the world the characters live in, not told about it. If the author can capture my interest by transporting me to another place and putting me with people I can care about, I trust he/she is skilled enough to make the entire book work.

    Let's not sell out to the TV-influenced demand for a sound bite plot.

  5. I LOVE Zadie Smith's analogy of coming to a book like a pianist comes to a challenging piece of music. There's so much more to music than mere notes. "The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you." Wow.

  6. Mike, I think what you're saying is very true.

    It's a little bit scary when you think about the next generation. An entire culture that's been condition to be entertained and told what to think by their favorite cable news station.

    Even in our church,people say, "Don't teach deep theology. I don't have time to think about and study that stuff. That's for the pastors. Why don't we just read a (insert pop Christian author's name here) book instead?"

    It's sad.

  7. Great piece - very thought-provoking, very true. I've seen this so often in our society today. People don't want to think; they want to be bottle-fed and entertained. May we as writers continue to challenge them, rather than giving in and feeding them mac and cheese. Thanks, Mike.

  8. Thanks, Gina and Mike.

    Practice reading like Suzan points out should also imply Practice praying. We don't do either a lot anymore, because we have Christian self-help books that teach us how to forgo praying, but focus on a scripture until it becomes the next t-shirt.

    I love television. I watch all kinds of shows. But I also love the quiet and sitting on my settee reading a book to Selah or reading to myself.

    I don't think there is anything wrong with writing shorter fiction. I try to pack a great deal in my short stories, because I am a huge Edgar Alan Poe fan. I love short stuff. But I need to think deeply and pray hard.

    Great posts, guys.


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