The invisible reader

Martin Gilbert on the hazards of recommending books, and on the “postliterate society”:
“With novels, it becomes dicier. There is a risk in admitting you are moved by a bunch of words made up by someone you (probably) don’t even know. It is specious to pretend that novels, even those that win Pulitzer Prizes, occupy more than a minor place in American culture — novels are generally rough drafts of movies that are never realized, or the hobbies of academics, or the fever dreams of less-than-serious people. have their curious cult.
Occasionally one breaks through — like The Da Vinci Code or Cold Mountain — but for most of us, novels are something we would love to read if only we had the leisure…”

Several paras down, Gilbert makes his second point:
“Novelists seem to have as much to say as ever, but maybe books are becoming more and more dispensable to the modern human animal. We have other ways of telling ourselves stories — movies, television, even the thready and interactive labyrinth of the so-called New Media.”

I’ve heard this lament before, and one of the best ripostes to this came from the late Saul Bellow. Bellow was responding to an argument made by Terry Teachout, who now has a very popular blog over at Arts Journal. Teachout had written–this was decades ago–“My guess is that the independent movie will replace the novel as the principal vehicle for serious storytelling in the 21st century.”
Bellow’s argument, in this essay for the New York Times, was far removed from the normal books-vs-films discussion:
“I am not at all certain that in their day Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter had any considerable influence on ‘the national conversation’,” he wrote. “…The literary masterpieces of the twentieth century were for the most part the work of novelists who had no large public in mind. The novels of Proust and Joyce were written in a cultural twilight and were not intended to be read under the blaze and dazzle of popularity.”
Later in the essay, Bellow writes of the reader as an inevitable member of a minority:
“But there are in fact millions of literate Americans in a state of separation from others of their kind… They are, if you like, the readers of Cheever, a crowd of them too large to be hidden in the woods…
We have no way of guessing how many independent self-initiated connoisseurs and lovers of literature have survived in remote corners of the country. The little evidence we have suggests that they are glad to find us, they are grateful. They want more than they are getting. Ingenious technology has failed to give them what they so badly need.”





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