Reading all about the state of reading

IT'S hard these days to take a reading, as it were, on the world of books, but everybody seems to be trying. A lot depends upon the point of view. If you're a public figure-turned-author in 1985, you're going to think literature is a get-rich-quick scheme second only to striking uranium in your backyard. A sum in excess of $2 million has been advanced to David Stockman by Harper & Row, and about $1 million each is in the inky hands of Geraldine Ferraro (from Bantam), Jeane Kirkpatrick (from Simon & Schuster), and Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (from Random House).

Don't tell these political memoirists -- along with the nation's best-selling mayor, Ed Koch -- that literacy is not alive and well and playing in Peoria.

Add Lee Iacocca's name to the list of those who think the book industry is the bluest chip this side of, well, Japanese automobiles.

Not since the young F. Scott Fitzgerald -- or at least, not since the young Truman Capote -- have young, young novelists been so in demand. The youngest of them all, Bret Easton Ellis, has just sold for six figures the paperback rights to ``Less Than Zero'' -- his world-weary account of growing up rich in Los Angeles -- and he's still an undergraduate at Bennington College, looking forward to polishing off a second novel of eager ennui in his senior year.

If all this doesn't convince you we're returning to a golden age of reading, consider the odd little item at the bottom of a page in the New York Times, under the headline: ``New New Yorkers Turn Back to Books.'' It seems that young people moving to the Big City can't afford its gaudier pleasures. The only habit they can finance is reading. Furthermore, reading ``provides serenity and solitude against the crowds.''

A number of these Big Apple bookworms boast that they're reading more than they did in college, but Jules Feiffer has a sinister explanation. Two young people meet on the beach in one of his latest cartoons and discuss their summer. The boy lists all the books he's been reading. The girl asks why. The boy replies, ``No time in school. . . . All we do is computers.''

Uh-oh! Now a shadow of doubt begins to fall across the well-lighted page, as it always does, sooner or later, when the subject is reading. Perennial haunting questions occur:

Are more of us reading more, or (sound the alarums!) are ever fewer of us reading less?

Are we reading better books, or (more alarums, please) Harlequin Romances?

And while we're getting gloomy, what does it mean that bookstores sell almost as many T-shirts and posters as books?

Harper's magazine has printed a forum on publishing -- taped, of course, rather than written -- bearing the suitably scary title, ``Will Books Survive?''

The tone is brave, but we are told, among other things, that the United States, with 238 million citizens, numbers no more book readers than ``Sweden, Brazil, England, or wherever.'' If Americans ``read as much as the Danes, our sales figures would be in the millions.''

Should anybody still believe that this is the golden age of reading, some well-informed skeptic need only drop the name of Jonathan Kozol and his sobering report on illiteracy, or bring up the lengthening list of books being objected to by censorship groups. Add ``The Diary of Anne Frank'' to ``Huckleberry Finn'' and others.

After our promising start, is our little survey of state-of-the-art reading now prepared to pronounce this to be Gutenberg's age of dross? That's the way it goes when books are the topic.

Something in us wants to believe the best about ourselves as book-lovers, as if having passionate readers in sufficient quantities were the test of civilization.

Something in us dreadfully fears we're going to come out looking like barbarians.

The trouble with these literacy-litmus tests is that they prove as inappropriate as judging the state of religion by church membership.

Reading is an experience that resists the Kinsey-report approach -- the reduction of life to a simplistic pollster's statistics.

The very essence of reading is that it remains a private experience in a mass age. There can be no ``reading public.'' There is always only one book, one reader.

Virginia Woolf thought that every time a solitary reader took pleasure in a solitary book the world was saved, as much as the world ever gets saved. Most readers of Virginia Woolf -- and other authors -- will look up from their books long enough to agree. A Wednesday and Friday column

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