Thursday, April 19, 2012

Debunking the golden age of literature idea... again

After years of arguing against the alleged "golden age" of literacy and literature, I have to admit to a bit of smug delight in seeing this chart (via Books, Inq.):

As the attached article points out, this chart seems very much indicative of the fact that reading rates have risen sharply over the past fifty years, rather than declined from a so-called better time for reading and literature. Madrigal, however, starts to get a bit muddled and distracted when attempting to explain away this statistic (or rather, what we assume to be the statistic, as this survey is outdated by a few years... also, perhaps more people today are in the middle of reading, but overall finish fewer books...? I'm going to ignore that thought for the purposes of this post...).
After I posted this chart, Twitter friends made some good points: 1) This chart does not establish that high-quality literature readers have increased. That is true. 2) There are a lot of factors that go into these numbers and variables that are unaccounted for 3) The big spike is partially driven by higher levels of higher education attainment. 4) Perhaps the quality of books has fallen, even as the number of readers has grown. 
While Madrigal is not wrong to address these points (particularly after they were raised by various readers), I feel that too many concessions are made to satisfy that awful misconception that there obviously was a golden age, and that today is the terrible, apocalyptic, polar opposite of that time. People seem to be rushing to maintain that age-old idea, whether by trying to dismiss the quality of the books people read today, or even by saying that it's only because of increased education (and that's clearly such a terrible thing, right?). Madrigal ends the article with a slight back-out, pointing out that today we only remember the best books of that golden age, while bad books of our modern era have yet to fade from the public view.

It's a bit of a weak ending, a point I feel needs to be reemphasized. Today - right now - we cannot know what will be remembered. What we see from previous generations has gone through dozens of filters, whether of literary awards, bestsellers, or simply books that have gained a following over the decades. The bad books have long ago gone out of print. Even many good books have gone the way of the dinosaur. This is, alas, the natural cycle of books (though makes a strong case for the return of many of these often-ridiculous books).

The fact is, though, that even if books today are of lower quality (and that's a huge if), I am firmly of the belief that at least people are reading, and more importantly, capable of reading. I cannot judge a reader for liking certain books, or having a particular style. I can judge a person for actively choosing not to read. It would appear that had I lived in the fifties, I would have had to be a lot more judgmental.


  1. sounds like. it's always easier to imagine the past with rose colored glasses!

  2. I'm skeptical that there ever was a golden age of reading, but I'm just as sure that today is not a golden age of reading. People rush like lemmings to read mass-produced best sellers, while masterpieces go unsold and unread. A few of these masterpieces might be dug up later, just like masterpieces from earlier years are just now being re-discovered. Three significant examples are Irene Nemirovsky, Hans Fallada, and Dawn Powell.


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