Nuns of Reading

I don’t exactly think Claire Messud is wrong when she says this, but I think she greatly overstates the case. When Messud was a young girl, it was also the case that the pop culture of the day was much more likely to facilitate conversation among her peers than Jane Eyre; likewise there was plenty of passive entertainment available to draw away time from the “the concentrated leisure, the active effort, of reading and imagining.”

This state of affairs is much more visible now, when you constantly see people pull out their iPhones to play Angry Birds rather than suffer a moment or two of bored contemplation, but I don’t think these devices have done quite as much as people want to believe. True, they’ve offered a way to devote even more time to mediated entertainment than ever before, but the vast majority of our free time was already long since spoken for. The increase is real, but it is tiny.

Reading is a weird, isolating, difficult thing to do. I think it’s wonderful and essential, and I wish everyone agreed with me, but the fact is many people don’t like it as much as you and I do. I’d say this has more to do with the human condition and the form mass culture takes more generally than it does with us all owning iPhones now.

Also, calling people who are devoted to literature “nuns of reading” doesn’t help.

If Philip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath was a “monk of fucking,” Lesser and Mead are nuns of reading. As a fellow sister in the order, I take particular pleasure in their books. But I’m also aware that nuns are an aging population, and converts ever harder to enlist. My daughter, all of twelve and a voracious reader, lives in a world in which iTunes, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter all vie pressingly for her time. Pretty Little Liars stands a better chance than Jane Eyre, and facilitates way more conversation with her peers. In Rebecca Mead’s and my own near-simultaneous youths, “books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be.” It’s not exactly that this is no longer true, but that the balance has shifted, and is ever shifting, away from the concentrated leisure, the active effort, of reading and imagining, toward other, more immediately accessible—and more passive—cultural forms.

Letters, and more painfully, their contents, are already largely gone; other literary species are endangered. The landscape changes inexorably, and we can’t know the future. But Mead and Lesser remind us of what riches we have—an interior world as precious as the external one—and of why we don’t want to lose them.

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