Wednesday, May 8, 2013

James Patterson Mourns the Passing of our National Literary Culture

Several weeks ago James Patterson placed an ad in the New York Times Book Review and in Publishers Weekly asking why the federal government "has stepped in to save banks, and the automobile industry, but where are they on the important subject of books?"

(See Salon, "James Patterson speaks out about his aggressive 'book industry bailout' ads")


While many people have taken issue with the notion of a bailout for the traditional publishing industry, I see a deeper issue: what Patterson is really lamenting is the passing of an idealized national book culture.

The last question before the list of 38 books he considers important is, "What will happen if there are no more books like these?"

I was educated at an elite, east-cost university and hold a post-graduate degree. My home is filled with books (more than a ton of book boxes the last time we moved). I've read only four of the thirty-eight books listed in the ad. [To be fair, I've been affected by a few others on the list (e.g., movies).]

What's wrong with me? Why, in terms of Patterson's list, am I so poorly read?

Because I was reading other things.

There was a time when it mattered what was on television: with only three broadcast networks, you could always find people who had watched what you watched last night and wanted to talk about it. Now with hundreds of cable channels, video on demand services like Netflix, and YouTube, we can no longer assume anyone else watched what we watched.

With the possible exception of the Bible, not only is the same true for books, it has actually been a very long time since there were few enough books that one could make any assumptions about what most people had read.

Even though there has never been a national book culture, Patterson's lament is worth considering:

  • What does literary culture mean in the new world of textual abundance created by Amazon and its ilk? 
  • Who decides which novels belong in the canon of literature with which everyone should be familiar?

The answer is: we do.

In the infinite online catalog, we can actually vote (through reviews, for example), for the texts we consider worthwhile. Like democracy, the system isn't perfect, but over time it will tend to work better than tyranny, however benign.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.
Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net