Ought we to be ashamed as readers? Or, at all?

I have been having the most interesting conversation with Tom, albeit through truncated comments rather than around a table,  on his post about France’s bookstores. His point, I believe, is that they shame American bookstores. That is a point well taken.

But, I took it farther. I pressed on to say that French fragrance and fashion and food shames American products of the same sort. Tom wishes to keep the critique to art (i.e. literature).

Okay, let’s talk about literature for a minute here. Can we start with what I read my eight and nine year olds in my third grade class?

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This year I was surprised by a group of 8 fifth graders, who knocked on my door and presented me with a large purple cellophane box. Inside, was an item they had made for each read-aloud book I had shared with them when they were in third grade. There was an origami box turned into a covered wagon for The Little House on The Prairie. There was a tissue box covered in spiders for Charlotte’s Web. (“Because you always cry at the end.”) There was a recipe for ladyfingers from one of my childhood favorites, The Pink Motel. I won’t bore you with a description of each item, the point is what I read to them mattered. What I read to them was mostly from many, many years ago.

What matters now? What kinds of books are written, published, or read that matter? Books are available because they titillate, or entertain, or are expected to make a profit for the publisher. But I wonder about the quality of the writing, the worth and lasting value of the books we read today.

Perhaps this is why, in part, I have turned so eagerly to translated literature. It seems that books from other countries are better at addressing pertinent issues, or at least the large dilemmas in life. I think of the lists for the Man Booker International Prize I have read over the years, each one seared into my memory. (Even The Iraqi Christ, which I loathed.) They are more than a “trite” murder, fantasy, or romance driven novel. They are the bread and meat of which life is made.

And so we come full circle. Ought we to be ashamed of what we read? Are books with little inherent value being published at the fault of the reader or the publisher? Or, perhaps you feel that the books published today, in America, bear no blame at all. But I contend that we are not living with the quality I once knew, nor the quality enjoyed by those abroad. And I think it speaks to a larger issue of loss, a decline in culture, or morality, unlike any time I have seen before.

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25 thoughts on “Ought we to be ashamed as readers? Or, at all?”

  1. Your post sent me right to Amazon to look for a copy of “The Pink Motel” which I loved when I was a child. Out of print 😦 So glad your classes still get to enjoy it! I agree there is a lot of dreck published, but I keep finding one good book after another, with help from friends, critics and folks like you :), some in translation and some not.

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    1. I’m glad you know of The Pink Motel! The name can sound so ridiculous, and yet there’s much to learn from the robbers, the parents, and Sandra’s character. Just as Roald Dahl teaches what can come of selfishness and being spoiled, so does Caroline Brinkman in her own enchanting way. It almost surprises me, though, that the children continue to love it.

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  2. I agree with you, there has been a decline. I just finished Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? His main message is not about books, but he does have a brief section on books, in which he states that books won’t be “special” anymore, because so many people are writing them – the quality will be lower – and because there will be new forms of collaboration with multiple authors using multiple media platforms. He doesn’t think this is a bad thing, necessarily, but he does contend that a book by a single intellect is singular and special, and there is nothing else like it – he hopes therefore that books as we know them don’t go away. Decades ago I was a book editor in educational publishing for children and YA – I miss that old model of quality authors and books discovered by excellent, professional editors….traditional American publishing holds little interest for me these days.

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    1. “Traditional American publishing”, I think that’s what I am alluding to. My husband insists that supply meets demand, and I’m no business person by any stretch. But I can’t help but think that the publishers are part of the problem, the problem being a lack of truly quality literature as I see it. I’m constantly pitched books that can be described as women’s lit at best, and I don’t want to read them. I never though of books by multiple authors on multiple platforms; how ghastly!

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      1. I think that there is quality literature being published here in America, but by independent publishers without deep pockets. So they don’t have the marketing money and have a harder time gaining a wider audience. I hear often that excellent memoirs are turned away here because the author isn’t hugely known, and therefore doesn’t already come with an audience. And the big publishers often don’t seem to promote quality authors, they don’t put the money behind them. It is upsetting. Yes, supply meets demand, but….I don’t know. It seems also to me that the demand is not there, here in the States, for quality literature – so publishers aren’t publishing them. Certainly I think we have issues here with education, information, awareness, and dumbing down.

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  3. I’m not sure that’s always the case, at least in children’s literature. Alongside some dreadful series (BeastQuest and Colour Fairies, anyone?), there are also some classics in the making like ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’, which really helped my boys understand what it feels like to be high-functioning autistic, and ‘A Monster Calls’, which deals with grief and anger (and where I need lots of tissues too). But there are also lots of copy-cat works, particularly in YA (all the vampire and time-travelling and dystopian stories, simply because a few of them have been so successful). So yes, there is jumping on the band-waggon and there is the truly innovative and memorable, as I suppose there was in every time period (we’ve just forgotten about the dross from 50-100 years ago).

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    1. I so agree with the “jumping on the band wagon” bit. As though every children’s book needs to have a wizard in it. It’s true that The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time did a stellar job of portraying autism, especially for those unfamiliar with it. But I’m not terribly aware of crap books from 50-100 years ago. Everything I can think of excels most of what’s available for children today. The Yearling, The Chronicles of Narnia, Heidi, Little Women, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, The Wind and The Willows, Pinocchio, I can keep going, but you get the idea.

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          1. Some close-to-crap books from the 40s & 50s Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames books–read one you’ve read them all; Janet Lambert’s books about Army brats (Penny Parrish etc,etc.). We read an enormous amount of crap in magazines–True Romance (hid under the bed)–and comic books. Then there were movie fan mags (Photoplay). We found plenty of crap.

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            1. Well, there we are. I tend to look at things with great nostalgia, but of course crap has always been there. It just seems so readily available today!

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    2. I think there is a heck of a lot more dross now, though. And I do think there has been a decline in quality that is disturbing. Much of this has to do with the internet and the digital world. I think it is sad that authors find it harder and harder to make a living….our society will eventually suffer for this.

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  4. This, for me, sums it up brilliantly: “But I contend that we are not living with the quality I once knew, nor the quality enjoyed by those abroad. And I think it speaks to a larger issue of loss, a decline in culture, or morality, unlike any time I have seen before.”

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    1. I was afraid those lines would offend, so I’m glad they resonate with you, Beth. When I was considering the post, before hitting “publish”, I thought, “Well, it is my blog. If I can’t say how I feel here, where can I say it?” I am concerned, though, that in a world were nothing seems to be thought of as wrong, how can we define what is right?

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      1. I agree 100%, Bellezza. It is a larger issue. There are many days when I’m so saddened and outraged by the lack of etiquette and decency in our society that I shudder. It’s a poison that’s seeping into the book world.

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  5. It is an interesting conversation. I will expand a few points, mostly in the name of accuracy.

    My point is not that French bookstores shame American bookstores. American bookstores are generally pretty great. Gulf of Maine, The Bookstore in Lenox, Prairie Lights, City Lights, Green Apple, Seminary Co-op. But these are the superb survivors of the great cull of bookstores. The existence of so many French bookstores perhaps shames the collapse of so many American bookstores. But what were the owners supposed to do? The readers weren’t there for them.

    What was so sad and amusing about the Perec display I saw in France was that it was at the big shopping mall. That is what made me laugh – the big tribute to the French avant-garde at the mall.

    It is the nearly total loss of status that I find so depressing. Our great artists used to appear on TV talk shows, on mainstream magazine covers, and in movies – heck, in Bugs Bunny cartoons – that made them part of the larger culture. The amount of literature, and real discussion of literature, in American magazines was substantial. It’s mostly gone now. It was mostly gone before anyone thought to wrote a book blog.

    In France (and Germany and Austria, to stick with what I have seen with my own eyes), that great cultural discussion is ongoing. The idea that an educated person knows a lot about culture is still strong. In the U.S., culture has turned into a hobby.

    On the quality of the actual books published, I agree with Marina. The best books are as good as they’ve generally been; the worst, if you are not a professional reviewer, should be ignored. Do you read The Little Professor? Her specialty is the crap books of 100 years ago. There were mountains of them. They were immensely popular. Of course you’re not “terribly aware” of them – they were terrible! And thus forgotten, replaced with new terrible books, which are again replaced, endlessly.

    And of course, the French publishing industry cranks out its own mountain of terrible, soon to be forgotten books, almost none of which are translated. But they exist.

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    1. “The existence of so many French bookstores perhaps shames the collapse of so many American bookstores.” That is clarification for me, and I apologize to incorrectly represent your meaning in reference to your post.

      I continue in persevering with my opinion that the decline of culture (cultural literacy) horrifies me. You bring up Bugs Bunny. I remember when even cartoons of my childhood, which I wasn’t allowed to watch for their violence, contained classical music! The first time I heard Franz Liszt was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and children didn’t even know it. But, they were exposed to it. They could hum along when they heard the music being played later on in a symphony. What quality music is played today for children?

      Of course I am not so foolish to believe that any other country does not produce its fair share of poor literature. In fact I read an awful book translated from French a few years ago which gleaned tremendous praise and sold copies in the millions. (The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker.) I still tend to think that translated books in general, and classic literature to be specific, far exceeds the quality of American best sellers. (Or prize winners for that matter; consider Paul Beatty’s The Sellout which won last year’s Booker.)

      I am concerned about the decline of culture overall, as I see it, which came to a focal point in my mind when I first read your post. Although, that is my take away, not necessarily your point.

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  6. Bellezza, I am not yet familiar with The Pink Motel, but will learn more about it very soon. I loved reading about the thoughtful gifts your students presented to you! Classic books and literature withstand the test of time. In America, we have more diversity and experimentation, but there is quality as well. Quality lasts, regardless of its location.

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    1. We have so much diversity here! It enriches my classroom, both in my teaching and personal learning, so much. How I love my “children”, and sharing literature with them is just one of the great parts of our day together. It touched me so much that these fifth graders remembered what I read them in third. I am confirmed in my opinion that what I have read aloud was worthy literature. Phew!

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  7. All right, this has been eating at me – ha ha ha – that’s a pun! How can you possibly include American food in your narrative of decline? American food has been improving in all sorts of ways for decades. U.S. food culture is as varied and interesting as its ever been, right now. Sometimes I wonder if we are even over-emphasizing food at the expense of other aspects of life. But then those moments pass, and I eat or drink something wonderful.

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    1. No, I mean American food pales in comparison to French food.

      I guess I took your initial post to suggest that French bookstores are better than American bookstores, which I expanded by saying even French food and fragrance and fashion are better than American.

      Then, I started thinking about how concerned I am about our current state, which seems to me a state of woe, morally, and have wrapped the whole thing up together. Now is when I really wish that we were face to face for clarification of our ideas.

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  8. I do not believe that it is true at this point that French food, in general, is particularly better than American food, in general. I am not sure that it has ever been true that French food at any but the elite restaurant level was better than American Southern food. Certainly not for the last 30 years or so.

    As with some of the other comparisons here, are you sure you are comparing like categories?

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    1. The last time I was in Paris was when I bought my wedding dress there in 2001, and I have been in France for the summer in 1971, 1973 and throughout the mid 1980’s. Never have I tasted bread anything close to theirs, nor coffees, nor omelettes aux fines herbes, nor any patisserie item that can favorably compare.

      I take America for what it is; there are many, many excellent things in America. But I do not find food or fragrance or fashion to excel France’s.

      I feel our discussion has turned into more of an argument, which is never anything I intend to do. Please know I respect your opinions although mine may differ.

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