06 October 2008

The Google reveals all. The Google speaks to me of the reading public.

Back in 1914 a man by the name of MacGregor Jenkins -- publisher of the Atlantic Monthly which in those days wasn't the complete right wing rag it is now -- published The Reading Public. It's something of a tongue-in-cheek book published a few months after the outbreak of the Great War and so perhaps was a bit untimely in its glib presentation. I don't know how well the book did as a critical or commercial success, but I do know that google books has digitized it and anyone who cares to read it can.

Jenkins divides the "reading public" into book readers and magazine readers. He further subdivides the book readers into three categories from least to greatest numbers: the sponge reader, the sieve reader, and the duck-back reader. The sponge reader reads "fewer and better books than his fellows" -- resulting, according to Mr. Jenkins, in his being ignored by authors and publishers. The sieve reader reads quite a bit and is full of surface facts and plots and literary gossip, but doesn't have the critical acumen of the sponge reader. Meanwhile, the lowly duck-back reader, while great in number, absorbs absolutely nothing and is entirely unchanged by reading because reading is for the duck-back simply a way to kill time (Jenkins believes the swelling of this number to be caused by the increasing phenomenon of commuting).

I'm not entirely sure if Jenkins takes these classifications seriously. He warns us at the outset that in his professional job he's not "a man of letters" and therefore is used as a stand in for the nebulous "man in the street." Secondly, he warns us -- after having classified readers -- that "it is very easy to classify the readers of books, but like all generalizations, such a classification is only half true" (36). So he's either taking the piss or he's a nascent poststructuralist or maybe both, as many traditionalists believe all poststructuralists to be. However, he seems to fall squarely in the traditionalist camp when he states that the "day of real literary criticism has past [sic]" (36). In 1914.

Jenkins clearly believes -- and I think without irony -- that one should not waste time reading inferior books (he uses the term "inferior," yes). However, he leaves the door open with his definition of "literature" as "only a form of expression, an interpretation of the phenomena of human existence, the painting of pictures of life" (41), and suggests that such a thing can be found in many genres. As many a literary scholar schooled in the 1980's and beyond knows, this definition is almost as wide-open as that of a "text."

In the end, Jenkins reveals almost nothing about the reading public; he is much more preoccupied with advocating "proper" dedication to reading and reading choices. So I don't know that I'm any closer to understanding what the hell the reading public actually is, although I was greatly interested in his obvious understanding that lifestyle shapes reading patterns, as in his belief that "duck-back" readers have increased exponentially due to the growing pattern of commuting in the early 20th century.

In this day and age, it may be that the duck-backs are all that keep publishing houses afloat, since reading as a recreational activity has long-since ceded top billing to the television and has lost serious ground to the internet and video games (and by reading I mean reading as the activity, not reading as a skill that facilitates the activity). "Reading" is both everywhere and nowhere; more people read today than ever before, but a smaller percentage of them "read" today.

If you catch my drift.


JES said...

Brilliant find. Were you looking specifically for Jenkins's book or did you just trip over it? (Ah, serendipity...)

Found you via Jordan Baker's blog, btw.

cuff said...

Jes: I just tripped over it. The marvels of google. I'm glad you came over to read a bit.

JES said...

Oh, I suspect I'll become a regular skulker in the shadows. There's a sh!tload of good stuff here, from politics to writing. (And it always gladdens my heart to see someone whose post lengths are in the same ballpark as mine. Heh.)

Speaking of politics, I trust you know that somebody FINALLY decided to stir up memories of the Keating Five. I don't know what the hell took them so long.