How illiteracy, and aliteracy, waste the wisdom of the ages

One might start with the statistics: Twenty-seven million Americans cannot even read the warning on a container of pesticide.

Among current graduates of urban high schools, 15 percent read at less than the sixth-grade level.

Of the 158 United Nations members that have supplied figures about the distribution of reading materials, the United States ranks 49th in literacy.

There are three times as many identified nonreaders in the US today as in 1970.

But George Steiner doesn't begin with the numbers -- although he cites them. In the R. R. Bowker Memorial Lecture he delivered in New York this spring (reprinted in the May 24 Publishers Weekly), his point is even more sobering. The great age of reading, he argues, is behind us. The period from the 1790s to 1914 (from the French Revolution until World War I) marked ``an oasis of quality'' where great literature reached a mass audience. We are not apt to see its like again.

His argument deserves our attention for three reasons. First, Dr. Steiner knows whereof he speaks. There are precious few genuine ``men of letters'' left, and the American-born Steiner is one of them. His career escapes definition: linguist, essayist, one-time journalist, teacher of English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva and at Cambridge, he is also an author of both literary criticism and such highly regarded fiction as ``The Portage to San Crist'obal of A.H.'' Over the years, he has held the act of reading up to the light and looked at it from every angle. Few know its facets as well as he; fewer still can describe its spectra so accurately.

Second, his argument is lucid, straightforward, matter-of-fact -- and jarring. Tracing the history of reading from earliest times to the present, he pays tribute to such architectural developments as the invention of bookshelves and the coming together of space and silence in the private library. He comments on the difficulty women had in winning access even to their own husbands' libraries. He dwells lovingly on the ``unique moment'' of the 19th century, when there was ``a matching between the best that is being thought and written on the one hand, and a very large popularity -- great sales, great circulation, massive readership -- on the other.'' And he bemoans the wedge driven between serious literature and the mass audience by such ``experimental'' and ``esoteric'' writers as Mallarm'e, Joyce, and Proust.

Well, so what? What if, as he foresees, reading divides into three classes -- the ``momentary entertainment'' of the ``airport book,'' the reading of computer screens for information and figures, and the experience of a shrinking elite that still understands ``the tactics of repose and concentration which great books demand of us''? What if the book, as we know it, largely disappears? What if power passes from the literate to the merely numerate?

``What is now happening,'' says Steiner -- and here is the third and most important reason for listening to him -- ``is the search for the secret book, the hidden book, the book understandable only to initiates.'' In that one sentence, he has aptly described the trend of 20th-century literature -- away from the accessible styles of such 19th-century giants as Tennyson and Dickens and into the willful obscurities of Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett.

Not that Steiner condemns the brilliance of modern literary inventivenes. But ``what haunts me,'' he writes, ``is the possibility that this search for the great hidden book, for the revelations through some esoteric masterpiece, represents some kind of effort, probably subconscious or subliminal, to replace the Bible and the loss of authority of Scripture . . . after the 19th century.''

This, then, is the point behind the point about literacy. What matters, in our age, is not just that people read for information, or for amusement, or for whatever else the television screen and computer terminal can alternatively provide. It is that they read for wisdom, for depth, for a conscious acquaintance with the values and judgments of great thinkers thinking greatly. The tragedy of illiteracy -- and the even greater waste of aliteracy, involving those who know how to read seriously but don't -- is that it abandons the accumulated wisdom of the ages. It places fine writing in the hands of fewer and fewer interpreters, whose translations and commentaries become progressively oversimplified -- and whose audience, increasingly unable to think for itself, grows more and more susceptible to the manipulations of the elite.

Are we headed, then, backward into the pre-print attitudes of the Middle Ages, when the literate few ruled the illiterate many? Our sense of democracy should rise in rebellion at such a notion. To avert such backsliding, the last years of this century must be given over to two things: training people how to read, and teaching them why they should want to read. For that second act -- without which the first will surely fail -- Steiner helps set the stage.

A Monday column

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