The Chronicle of Higher Education presents On Not Reading by Amy Hungerford. Academics are the main candidates for this ailment (and not just those in David Lodge’s universe). The amount of material you have to work through is obviously a bit of a problem if as a literary scholar you chose to study contemporary literature rather than earlier periods. Students of classical Greek literature may bemoan the amount of material that has been lost: the student of the contemporary novel has to decide which of thousands of books he/she will not read. Shouldn’t we really feel sorrier for the former though?
Classical studies as a consequence of the scarcity of texts perhaps have developed a methodology of intensive textual analysis. If you only have a couple of brief or even partial texts from your chosen author you are liable to end up reading them differently than you or I would read the latest Jonathan Safran Foer. I was always a bit annoyed at the idea of R. W. Chapman of Oxford University Press applying the methods of classical textual reconstruction to Jane Austen’s text. This resulted in the addition of lots of commas, which he was able to deduce she had really intended should be there.
Ms Hungerford piece is entertaining but she goes a bit adrift when she suggests “Because more books are published than ever before, thanks to the birth of desktop publishing software in the 1980s . . .”. Can we really attribute an increase in books published to the birth of the word processor? Sure, computers make it easier to compose a book, but isn’t this a bit like attributing the rarity of chairs dating to the seventeenth century and earlier to the invention of the machine-driven lathe?
Firstly, I suspect (because one can’t really know) that many more books were written in the olden days than we imagine. I’ve just been reading Ruth Scurr’s excellent John Aubrey: My Own Life (NYRB 2016). Aubrey’s a case in point. He wrote constantly and was obsessive about preservation, altogether appropriately for an antiquary, and worried about his manuscripts being lost after his death. In the end he managed to scramble out one book before he died. For the next couple of hundred years nothing happened. By the end of the 20th century about 10 of his works had been rescued — his manic directions that his papers should be stored in the Ashmolean, (now in the Bodleian) had worked, and his writings were eventually excavated. How many a “mute inglorious Milton” has the luck to have his writings survive, and then almost as luckily, found?
Secondly, the surge in numbers of books published results primarily from the commercial muscle-flexing of the post WWII publishing industry. When you figure you can make money off almost anything, then almost anything will find its way to the marketplace. Desktop publishing happened along coincidentally, and just made the supply of the voracious press that much more efficient — it didn’t cause the hunger though. Clearly we none of us can avoid awareness of the recent the explosion of output occasioned by the invention that consists of a) the internet, b) Amazon, c) the e-book and d) self-publishing. With all that coming at us refusing to read is merely inevitable.
The one way in which Ms Hungerford’s claims against desktop publishing ring true is that I do believe that the ability simply to revise your work without laboriously retyping pages of it, did result in longer and longer books. (See Bloat.) She cites David Foster Wallace’s arrogance in wanting to make his Infinite Jest lengthy and obscure so people would have to read the book twice. Still we’ve had plenty of long books from before the days of on-line writing, and obscurity is by no means a consequence of modernity however much it may be attractive to some its practitioners.
I believe it was Sir Francis Bacon who was said to be the last person able to claim to have read every book ever written, though other claimants exist, notably John Milton. Whoever it may have been — the point is they had to be wrong, because so much of what had been written had been lost or never even found in the first place. This of course just reinforces my cynicism about such claims: surely anyone who’d be in any position even to think about making the claim would know that it was a ridiculous thing to say. No doubt we could track this bit of urban myth back to some biography or other in which the hagiographer writes “X was so well-read that it might be said . . .”.
In this context the BBC’s graphic animation linked to in my recent post Get on with it may be relevant.