Monday, November 08, 2004


Maybe it's because it's cold and gray outside and the days are shorter. Maybe it's because I voted for Kerry. Maybe it's because it's Monday and I had a hard day at work. Maybe it's all of those and maybe it's none. Whatever it is, this Philp Pullman article at the Guradian is somewhat worrisome. Pullman writes about reading in a democracy and reading in a theocracy. He explains that there doesn't have to be a god involved to have a theocracy. All you need is a state in which the same characteristics are present. Reading, Pullman insists, is democratic and as such it cannot truly exist in a theocracy:

So our relationship with books is a profoundly, intensely, essentially democratic one. It places demands on the reader, because that is the nature of a democracy: citizens have to play their part. If we don't bring our own best qualities to the encounter, we will bring little away. Furthermore, it isn't static: there is no final, unquestionable, unchanging authority. It's dynamic. It changes and develops as our understanding grows, as our experience of reading - and of life itself -increases. Books we once thought great come to seem shallow and meretricious; books we once thought boring reveal their subtle treasures of wit, their unsuspected shafts of wisdom.
At the same time, democracies can't guarantee that reading will happen, only that it is possible. I think Pullman is partially right. I think reading is democratic if you are literate. If you can't read you are excluded from the democracy of reading. And I won't even go into the ways in which schools fail. It is not the teachers' fault, but more the fault of the whole system. And I think that just because a society may be theocratic doesn't mean there is no democratic reading going on. It may not be happening in plain sight but that doesn't mean it isn't happening. Are we a democracy in danger as Pullman implies at the end of the article? Perhaps. But I can't help but feel like a mountain is being made out of a molehill sort of like the NEA report that came out a few months ago. Sure, the current state of our society doesn't exactly make reading for pleasure an attractive choice. Nor is there any lack of doomsayers decrying the end of reading or the book as we know it. But that doesn't mean that we are about to turn into Stalinist Russia either.