I got sucked into a conversation last night over at Unfogged that started out with ogged’s annoyance over what he refers to as the “bitchy whine” at the Washington Post about how Harry Potter basically demonstrates the end of literacy as we know it. Ogged wisely noted that the general claim that no one reads anymore always masks a more specific claim that no one reads anything good anymore, but that because that “anything good” goes unspoken, we’re never required to have the conversation about what “good” means, and where those values come from, and why they should be supported, or undermined, as the case may be.
Wisely, I say, as this argument is at the heart both of my last project and the new one as well. But also wisely because ogged provoked the conversation, comment after comment about the value of literary reading, as compared with the value presented by other forms of reading (including that form of interpretation that one brings to bear on non-textual media such as television). It’s a fascinating conversation, and one that seems to me to demonstrate by example the utter wrongness of the sense that only texts written according to a particular set of conventions, printed on sheets of paper which are collected into signatures and then bound between covers, have cultural merit. The article I’ve just finished writing, which I’ll be posting for comment soon, claims at one point that the deep purpose of all publishing is conversation, of some variety or another, whether the casual discussion among a book group, the formal discussion of a class, or the slow and painstaking discussion (stretched out over decades) of scholars, though the institutional structures that have risen up around reading over the last five centuries have gradually attenuated that social purpose. Here’s a conversation, however, and a great one at that, provoked by a one-paragraph blog entry. So under what definitions would this not qualify as “good”?