Narcissus Regards a Book

Narcissus Regards a Book 1

Polly Becker for The Chronicle Review

By Mark Edmundson

Who is the common reader now? I do not think there is any way to evade a simple answer to this question. Common readers—which is to say the great majority of people who continue to read—read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained. They read to be diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled. The evidence for this phenomenon is not far to seek. Check out the best-seller lists, even in the exalted New York Times. See what Oprah’s reading. Glance at the Amazon top 100. Look around on the airplane. The common reader—by which I don’t mean the figure evoked by Dr. Johnson and Virginia Woolf, but the person toting a book on the train or loading one into his iPad or Kindle—the contemporary common reader reads for pleasure, and easy pleasure at that. Reading, where it exists at all, has largely become an unprofitable wing of the diversion industry.

Life in America now is usually one of two things. Often it is work. People work hard indeed—often it takes two incomes to support a family, and few are the full-time professional jobs that require only 40 hours a week. And when life is not work, it is play. That’s not hard to understand. People are tired, stressed, drained: They want to kick back a little. That something done in the rare off hours should be strenuous seems rather unfair. Robert Frost talked about making his vocation and his avocation one, and about his work being play for mortal stakes. For that sort of thing, assuming it was ever possible, there is no longer the time.

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