Monday, September 20, 2010

Illiteracy v. James Patterson

I have just discovered the all-book related site, The Second Pass.

They recently published the factoid, via Forbes, that one out of every 17 novels bought in the U.S. are authored by James Patterson. Wow. The post goes on to state, "that’s almost more dispiriting than straight-up illiteracy stats."

Just for your information, those illiteracy stats include the following:
  • 50%! of American adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level
  • 20% of Americans are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level
  • 3 out of 4 people on welfare can't read
  • 3 out of 5 people in an American prison can't read
  • 85% of juvenile offenders have problems reading
I know that this will shock you, but I've never read a book by James Patterson. I've never held a book by James Patterson. I couldn't name one book he wrote. Scratch that last sentence. Swimsuit. He wrote a book called Swimsuit. I only know this because I walked over to my office-mates desk and looked. She always has Patterson novels on her credenza.

I am often of two minds about what people read. On the one hand, I feel I should be a populist and say, Reading is Good, so if people are reading, that's good, regardless of what they're reading. I started to write "I'm only talking about fiction here. Nonfiction is another story," and then was going to give the following example: "I don't think that a disenfranchised white teenage male in a rural area with a growing non-white (non-English speaking?) population with access to a lot of guns, fertilizer and meth reading, say, Mein Kampf, the Turner Diaries and right-wingnut propaganda would necessarily be a good thing. Because that's kind of what got Tim McVey in trouble. I don't think he did meth though."

Then I was going to say, well - that's true except for fiction-as-propaganda, and use the illustration of Glenn Beck's The Overton Window (is that what it's called?), which from all accounts seems a fictionalization of his Obama is a Marxist, Beware the Future scare-tactics...in which case reading can equal bad. Then I realized the example of the Turner Diaries is the same thing (and many have been comparing Overton to Turner). I suppose it's all in the hands of the reader, though, since the non-propaganda-filled Catcher in the Rye obviously played a role in the murder of John Lennon, so there you go. (This may really shock you, but I've actually read The Turner Diaries.)

The other side of me feels sad about the state of our reading culture, where the likes of Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyers, Elizabeth f-ing Gilbert and other brands of medicore take center stage at the expense of struggling yet really good literary fiction writers. And maybe not so struggling good literary fiction writers like Foer and Eugenides. And dead authors who are frickin' amazing. But the whole numbing of America isn't just taking place in the literature world, it's taking place on TV where VH1 is on like season 17 of a dating show where poor black women (and some women of other races) dressed like hoochies vie for the love of never-weres "Real" and "Chance" - less than wanna-be rappers whose only so-called Claim to Fame is trying to date someone who tried to date Flavor Flav. Or is it Flava Flav? I even like Public Enemy and I don't know how to spell his frickin name. This is not even to mention the film industry where the biggest hits of the last five years appear to be remakes and sequels. And film versions of Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyers and Elizabeth f-ing Gilbert.

Back to the topic at hand...While statistics about how much money authors such as Patterson and Stephanie Meyers make annually, let alone how big of a chunk they make up of the book-buying in a single year, make me want to gag, and scream at the American public to pick up a frickin' book that might make you step out of your comfort zone - on the other hand I realize that 20% of Americans adults cannot read. They couldn't read Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown even if they wanted to. And that's not a good thing. Even if what they read, if they could, would be claptrap fluff, at least they would be able to read - which would be a very good thing. So despite how sad it makes me, I don't think that the fact that most people are reading Patterson is at all even close to being as despressing as the American illiteracy rate.

That is, of course, unless what they read - whatever it may be - inspires them to kill people.

1 comment:

e said...

I never leave comments anywhere, but I just have to let you know how refreshing this was for me to read! THANK YOU!