Friday, April 3, 2009


Near the end of the phone call, the old family friend asked what I’d been doing with myself lately. I explained that I’d filled the gaps in my planner with upkeep on my old, busted-up house and with books. I’d gotten halfway through a short synopsis of my latest genre find when she said (in a tone one usually reserves for placating overeager toddlers), “Well, Loren, it’s good that you still have time to read.” The implication wasn’t hard to grasp: Productivity ought to preclude narrative indulgence.

The post-literate groundswell has bowled me over more than once in the past few years, and not only because those younger than myself prefer Family Guy to fiction. No, more mature generations seem unable to justify time spent with the written word -- especially with stories. A retired doctor has told me several times that he thinks memoirs and histories and philosophical or theological treatises have merit, but narratives? Not much. A more poignant encounter involved a mother asking me to come to her house and recommend some titles to her kids, who couldn’t see the appeal of sitting down with a book. She sang the praises of reading while I plied the children with Roald Dahl and John Christopher and James and Deborah Howe. Then after they had gone to their rooms, she told me that the novels were fine if they helped develop mental discipline, but that she wouldn’t read anything like them herself. Too much to do.

Some small points for both camps to consider. To those who acknowledge the value of didactic literature but not of imaginative, think about the power of themes. Every story contains them, and such ideas are no less cerebral for being presented in narrative form. Rather, story brings the proposition into the reader just as a capsule conveys medicine into the innermost parts. And to those who believe that there’s no room in a well-ordered life for stories, consider that a person is more than effort and achievement, more than supposition and sharp thinking. We also are emotional beings, and part of our proper development is increasing our love of good and hatred for evil. And tales can thus train us.

(Picture: CC 2007 by


B. Nagel said...
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B. Nagel said...

"Post-literate groundswell." Nice phrase. Just the other day, I asked someone 'When did literature become disposable?'

I think the biggest obstacle to bound-book literary fiction is our multi/task-oriented obsessive culture. Not that the general public wants pablum, but they expect a delivery system that coincides the culture.

When I tell people that my degree is in English, the most common response is "Well, where do you teach?" No one wants to hear that I majored in literature and religion because I'm interested in sacred Story. They want to hear the End that the road points toward.

B. Nagel said...

*delivery system that coincides with the culture.


Loren Eaton said...

When I tell people that my degree is in English, the most common response is "Well, where do you teach?"

Ditto here. I studied literature in school because I loved it and believed it would make a better person. (Some of the most-precious things in life are found it books.) Pragmatism is fine -- I'm working on a business degree now -- but not the whole content of one's life. Glad to know someone other than me finds it frustrating.

Loren Eaton said...

And don't worry too much about oops. I just realized I'd published this post with bracketed placeholder text still in it!

(Sound of palm striking forehead)