07 April 2015

Because Something is Happening Here But You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Mister Jones?

by Paul D. Marks

One of the things that scares me most as a writer is an illiterate society. Not only illiterate in the sense of people being unable to read and write. But “illiterate” in the sense that, as a society, we have touchstones that everyone or at least most people are familiar with. Or I thought we did at one time. I’m not so sure anymore.

Let’s start with plain literacy on a personal and anecdotal level.

When my wife and I were looking for the house prior to our current house we noticed something odd, at least odd to us. We’d go in various houses in different parts of Los Angeles. But, unlike some of the shows on HGTV, you could still see the real people’s stuff in their houses. Their junk, ugly sofa, hideous drapes and kids’ toys strewn all over, laundry baskets, cluttered closets, etc. One thing we didn’t see much of were books. Sure, a house here or there had them, but the majority didn’t. And if they did they had a coffee table book or two of some artist they thought would make them look chic or intelligent or maybe a book of aerial views of L.A. One place we expected to see lots of books was in kids’ rooms or a potboiler on their parents’ nightstands. But, alas, the “cupboards” were bare.
This was twenty or so years ago, so well before smart phones, Kindles and e-readers. So, it’s not like all their multitudinous libraries were in e-form. No, there just weren’t many books to be seen.
We found this odd, as we have books stuffed to the rafters, as do most of our friends. Here, there and everywhere, in the living room or the dining room, library, the hallway, and even shelves upon shelves in the garage.

Flash forward: Cultural Literacy

29291When we went hunting for our current house, about ten years ago it was more of the same. By then there might have been some e-books and the like but the real revolution still hadn’t hit full bore yet.

Again this seemed odd. But more than odd, it’s scary. Especially for a writer. Because a writer needs readers. And if people aren’t reading, I’m out of a job, and maybe likely so are you. Even scarier though is the fact that, imho, we are becoming a post-literate society. And we are losing our shared background, some of which is gotten through books. Aside from the greater implications of that in terms of the country, it makes it harder as a writer because when we write we assume some shared cultural background. And we make literary or historical allusions to those ends. We mention composers or songs or symphonies. Books, authors, “famous” or “well-known” quotes that we assume most readers will be familiar with, some foreign phrases, even biblical references. Hemingway and even Bob Dylan songs (and I’m talking those from the 60s before he found religion in the 70s), as well as other writers, are filled with them. But often these days readers are not familiar with these references, so they miss the richness of the writing. So then we begin to question whether or not to include these references and sometimes end up writing to the lower common denominator. And that diminishes our works and our society, even if it sounds pompous to say that.

Maybe people won’t know who Rudy Vallee is, and that's understandable, but many also don’t know who Shakespeare is in any meaningful way.

743625500929_p0_v1_s600When I would go to pitch meetings in Hollywood I would often have to dumb down my presentation. I would try to leave out any historical or literary allusions. Hell, I’d even leave out film allusions because while these people may have heard of Hitchcock, few had seen his movies. And they were mostly from Ivy League type schools, but they didn’t have much of a cultural background. So when you have to explain basic things to them, you’ve lost them. They don’t like to feel stupid. And sometimes they’d ask me to explain something to them about another script they were reading by someone else. One development VP asked me to explain to her who fought on which sides in World War II, because she was reading a WWII script someone had submitted. The writer of that script already had points against him or her since the development VP didn’t even know the basics of the subject matter. And I would have thought before that incident that just about everybody knew who fought on which side in WWII. And this is just one example. I have many, many more experiences like this.

After college, the stats show that many people never—or very rarely—read another book. Literacy rates in the US are down. A lot of young people aren’t reading, but they think they’re smart because they look things up on Google. But looking something up on Google isn’t the same as knowing, though it’s better than nothing, assuming people do look things up. See: http://www.salon.com/2014/10/12/google_makes_us_all_dumber_the_neuroscience_of_search_engines/
I’ve seen several authors, some very well known, ask on Facebook if they should include X, Y or Z in a novel because their editor says no one will get the references, even though the references aren’t that obscure. But even if they are, what’s wrong with using them and having people (hopefully) look them up. Isn’t that how we expand our knowledge? But nobody wants to challenge anyone in that way anymore. We’re dealing with generations now that have been told how wonderful they are without having earned it. So when we unintentionally make them feel stupid by using references they’re not familiar with, they turn off. Is it just me or does our society seem to have no intellectual curiosity, no interests or hobbies other than texting or watching the Kardashians? They don’t have the will to look further than the screens of their smart phones?

I know I’m generalizing and that there are pockets of intellectual curiosity (like the readers of this blog!), but I feel like we are becoming a minority.

And when you do a book signing or a library event, do you notice the average median age and hair color of the audience? More times than not they’re older and grayer. And where are the young people? That’s scary.

I wish more people would make New Year’s resolutions to improve their minds as well as their bodies, to exercise their brains as well as their muscles. So maybe we should do yoga for the brain as well as the body.

At this point I’d even settle for grownups reading comic books or graphic novels as long as there’s words in them.

All of this scares me, not just as a writer, who might not have an audience in the future. But for society as a whole. We need to have a shared background, a common knowledge, a literate society of people who are engaged. Not everybody can know everything, of course. But there should be some common background that we can all relate to.

Shakespeare picture: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg#/media/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg
Blonde on blonde album cover: "Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg#/media/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg


  1. Strangely and sadly enough, I’ve been pondering similar concerns. At one time, classical allusions were once understood by everyone with a certain amount of education. Biblical references were common too, but now we’re reduced to the wisdom of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. Give me shelter from the storm.

    I wrote about teens who disdain anything ‘old’, but they’re hardly the first. I have acquaintances who think movies and pop music have 2-week expiration dates. I attended a seminar where a guy argued that record companies should support indy artists and drop Bach from their catalogues since nobody listens to useless old music.

    You've been with the professors
    And they've all liked your looks.
    With great lawyers you have
    Discussed lepers and crooks.
    You've been through all of
    F. Scott Fitzgerald's books.
    You're very well read
    It's well known… Mr. Jones.

  2. We noticed a lack of books in our house-hunting over forty years ago! Obviously, it's gotten worse since.
    I understand there is some research indicating that students who actually take notes by writing things down on paper with pens, remember more of what they're hearing, than do those who take notes by clicking away on a laptop or other electronic device. Sad.

  3. An A-list writer friend of mine said recently that our competition is not ebooks - it's HBO, Showcase, and all the great shows that are appearing on up-market networks. It's so much easier to park yourself in front of the telly rather than read, when you've come home from a grueling 1.5 hour commute.
    I'm posting a humour column on this subject here in a few weeks. The shocking thing it - it isn't new. I wrote it over 15 years ago.
    The writing was on the wall then.

  4. 30 years ago, I was in grad school for history (non-trad student, at least 10 years older than everyone but the teacher), and the teacher complained then of the "dumbing down" of American students, because it meant that they had to have everything explained to them. She used to be able to count on her students at least knowing the Bible, etc. - very important, because well into the 20th century, old diaries, memoirs, and sayings were full of allusions to the Bible & Shakespeare at the very least - but now, "They read 'Moby Dick', and they don't even know who Ishmael is." Everyone nodded wisely. Later that night, at the local watering hole, one of the students leaned in to me and asked, "Who IS Ishmael?" I explained it to her.

    Part of it is lowered expectations. If you've ever rented or streamed "Have Gun Will Travel", you'll hear Paladin reference everything from the Peloponnesian Wars to William Blake in a single conversation, before he shoots someone. (Star Trek had similar tropes - apparently Shakespeare found a whole new audience in the 23rd century.) At least there was some chance that a young kid would look up the "hoplite phalanx" just to see what his/her hero was talking about, and they might be off to the races. Now they get offered a reference to Beyonce or JayZee. If that.

  5. I wonder if the answer could be that since books are so damned difficult to pack up, people that have a lot of them simply sigh, shrug, and decide not to sell their house!

  6. Leigh: Yeah, that useless old music. What’s the point when we have Kanye? I’ve heard of some people – and it seems like a lot – who really don’t give a damn about anything that happened before they were born. I even had a friend tell me once that what was the point of learning history. I don’t get it, but I think it’s only going to get worse. And love the lyrics you put in to go with my post title. One of my favorite Dylan songs.

    Julia, that’s really scary. I would have thought that long ago there would have been more books around. And I’ve hearde that, too, about people who write notes. It always worked for me, ‘cause I took good notes, but barely studied otherwise.

    Melodie, I agree. We have to compete with TV, movies, all that stuff. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to sit down and let a show wash over you than have to put the effort into reading. But books do offer more depth, so hopefully we’ll still have an audience.

    Eve, your story is very scary, but sort of proves my point. You really do have to dumb things down to talk to most people today and that’s very despressing. Re: your Paladin reference: I used to write for a radio show – yeah they still have them (or did). And got called on the carpet by the producer who gave me and another writer a lecture about using too big words. We didn’t they were, but he did and we had to dumb that down too. It was very frustrating. So it’s nice that Paladin could use those references. Star Trek too. I guess there are exceptions, but unfortunately they are the excpetions.

    Dale, you might be right. One can only hope that the book people aren’t selling...

  7. So frightening, Paul! But I'm spoiled, I get to talk to, read about and hang out with authors, it's easy to forget the rest of the world isn't like us. One thing that gives me hope are all the people, young and old, I see on Goodreads. They may not be the norm, but they're there.

  8. Connie, I think we are spoiled and also in somewhat of a bubble. But hopefully you're right about the readers of all ages on Goodreads. Maybe there is hope. Though I tend to be on the pessimistic side.

  9. Come to my house, you'll see over 5000 books (probably closer to 6000 and ever growing), that doesn't count the 1000 or so on my Kindle and Kindle apps. I've been asked more than once why I have so many books. I usually respond, because I can - they are worlds I can escape into.

    Of our six children, at least four of them love to read. I think that's because there has always been books in the house and they were never allowed to say they were bored - I'd tell them to grab a book and start reading.

  10. Ironic how things turned out after that push to pump Mozart into baby cribs. Youth aren’t stupid but they can be so dumb. Did our parents say the same things about us?

  11. What wonderful comments! I love Andrew’s and I want to move in with Kat. I know what Connie means. It reminds me of what another sleuthsayer said, living in a town with a college isn’t the same as living in a college town.

    Melodie’s note reminded me of research that indicates that watching television stops parts of the brain working like no other form of entertainment including movies and stage plays. Sections of the mind supposedly shuts down. Julie’s observation may suggest this applies to the internet as well.

  12. I wish I could say I disagree with your post, Paul, but I can't. The only true glimmering hope seems to be the e-readers of all kinds. Amazon alone sells millions of new novels, and old ones, in one form or another. There are more new authors by day now on the Amazon marketplace than there were new readers before the e-reader advancements. :) Obscure references can still be made in a novel, but they need to be presented entertainingly. Too many I've run across are imparted in an info-dump. :)

  13. Paul, it's less a matter of recent generations not caring what happened before they were born, but that they don't believe anything important happened back then.

  14. The old movie, The Time Machine, had all those beautiful young people who were dumber than a rock, sitting around all day doing nothing and who were to end up as the "blue plate special" for the morlock. Is there much difference? The kids with the i-pads and smart phones will end up being "consumed" by a society that can no longer afford them. They will have no skills, no knowledge, no "common sense." The survival rate for that species is pretty low.


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