How Can We Teach Them to Read Stephen King When They’ve Never Read Danielle Steele?

Harold Bloom has an op-ed piece in the LA Times (subscription required) lamenting the fact that fewer people are reading novels, poems, and short stories than in the past. He cites a National Endowment of the Arts study that reports that “fewer than half of all Americans over the age of 18 now read novels, plays, short stories or poetry, and that only 56.9% have read any book at all in the last year.” Bloom acknowledges that these numbers aren’t exactly newsworthy. At the same time, a Boston newspaper has reported that one local high school district has included the poetry of controversial rap artist Tupac Shakur on its summer reading list for their students (link below).

To be fair, I’ve never been a fan of Harold Bloom’s work in constructing a “western canon.” I am, by nature, suspicious of the practices of exclusion that canon formation entails. I am aware that teaching literature and film classes automatically requires such a practice (there’s a reason I teach Citizen Kane and not the Bennifer film, Gigli, for example), but it’s often not clear what motivates the decision to confer canonical status onto one novel or film and not another. Attempts to exclude certain novels or poems, such as the work of Tupac Shakur, on the basis of taste seem designed to perpetuate the elitism that conservative critics accuse the people who taught Shakur of perpetuating.

Bloom attributes the decline in reading in part to the rising popularity of television, computers, and video games, and to a certain extent, I think he’s probably right that these technologies compete with reading novels and poetry for our finite attention span, but the implications of that competition are far from obvious. Bloom suggests that because of these new technologies, “it’s no wonder that the heads of so many Americans are stuffed with pointless information.” The implication is that knowing Shakespeare or Chaucer is worthwhile, but knowing Super Mario Brothers, Seinfeld, or The Simpsons isn’t, and this is where I find myself most resistant to Bloom’s position. I realize that my disagreement grows out of my own position as a film and media studies scholar, and to be fair, Bloom has acknowledged the significance of a few films, particulalry the end of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, to what he calls the “western canon.” But, as Kevin Drum points out, Bloom’s comments, intentionally or not, seem to suggest that the study of (great) literature is lost precisely because of the new emphasis on science and technology, or more preciely on the new media that are radically transforming literacy.

I’m going to be absolutely clear in saying that I love literature, Shakespeare and Chaucer included. We should have more focus on literature and the humanities at the high school and university level, but I also believe we should be conscious of these new forms of literacy (cinematic literacy, televisual literacy, gaming literacy) and provide students with a langauge for understanding the texts and media they encounter on a daily basis. Having a better understanding of how these media operate would seem to be one of the crucial problems of 21st century citizenship.

There are specific reasons that students respond to Tupac Shakur, and it’s essential that students understand that appeal, that they undertsand their investment in the work of such performers and artists. This doesn’t mean that I believe we should ignore texts written before 1990 or 1980 or some other arbitrary date, but I think the decision to reject certain texts (often the very texts that students find most appealing) runs the risk of making the humanities appear even less relevant. Besides, if students find that they like reading Tupac Shakur, they might then pick up a novel by Alice Walker or Toni Morrison, James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison. Instead of seeing Tupac Shakur as an impediment to literacy, why not see his poetry as a “gateway drug,” a way of getting students invested in the practice of reading, in the relevance of literacy.

Update: More information from the NEA, Joanne Jacobs, and Critical Mass.


  1. Clancy Said,

    July 11, 2004 @ 4:15 pm

    Thanks for this post, Chuck. I hear you–I got much better student engagement when I taught the poem “Riot Act” by Ai ( than I ever got trying to teach older, canonical works. I paired “Riot Act” with the film Do the Right Thing, and that helped. I have a friend who teaches high school, and he insists that the students in high school right now are, for the most part, visual learners, and it’s important to engage them that way if possible. Not that you can’t do that with, say, Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” but it seems worth mentioning.

  2. chuck Said,

    July 11, 2004 @ 8:06 pm

    I’ve had some good success teaching canonical works, including Faulker’s The Sound and the Fury, but the protectionist language regrading the canon frustrates me quite a bit.

    Agreed on the “visual literacy” point. I’m trying to work through some of those questions in my paper on Fight Club, which I read in part through the visual literacy demanded by the film (and yeah, I realize that’s pretty vague).

    Thanks also for the mention of the Ai poem. By coincidence, I’m teaching Do the Right Thing this week in my film class, and I might just borrow (steal?) your idea of teaching the two texts together.

  3. Clancy Said,

    July 11, 2004 @ 10:57 pm

    Yes! Please do! Let me know how it goes.

  4. jim Said,

    July 12, 2004 @ 10:32 am

    Chuck, I’ve seen the stats, too, but I wonder how many people in the 19th century were reading literature as opposed to penny dreadfuls. (Not to mention the literacy rate.) And, there might not have been a 19th century cinema to distract the masses (except in the last demi-decade), but there were plenty of melodramas packing ’em in. The canon has always been an elite thing, and can just as quickly be forgotten by the few who make it to college and out again unscathed (i.e., unchanged), as remembered by those who read more than the statistical 2 point something books a year that an average American does.

  5. chuck Said,

    July 12, 2004 @ 11:10 am

    I was going to raise that point about 19th century readership, but didn’t know where to include it in my little anti-Bloom rant. You’re right that the canon has always been about elitism, but I need more coffee before I can put together a coherent comment.

  6. cynthia Said,

    July 12, 2004 @ 12:13 pm

    i love when crotchety old men start griping about “these kids today!” as if they’re the first to ever say it.

  7. George Said,

    July 12, 2004 @ 12:28 pm

    You know, thousands of pages have been written on who was reading what, where they were reading it, and how often at different points in history. And yet, those who conducted this study seem to assume that the last 20 years in America are the only 20 that matter. The usual suspects will jump on the study’s shakily supported conclusions (television! no wait, the internet! no wait, the talkies!) in order to reinforce what they already believe without actually looking at the available evidence.

  8. chuck Said,

    July 12, 2004 @ 12:59 pm

    George, I thought about your research when I wrote this entry, but, again, wasn’t quite sure how to incorporate it into my little rant. I have to imagine that Bloom is well aware of that kind of research, which makes his rant sound all the more stodgy and crotchety.

  9. Jason Said,

    July 12, 2004 @ 2:06 pm

    Video games create violent, illiterate youth and are also the cause of global warming, dead puppies, and tooth decay.

    I also hear that reading Romances might lead a lady towards inappropriate behavior.


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