Reading and democracy

At the recent Sydney Writers Festival, NewYork-based Peter Carey told his audience that Australians “are getting dumber everyday…literally [sic] forgetting how to read.” He complained that cookbooks and Dan Brown novels consistently top our bestseller lists, and that we don’t grasp how destructive of democracy is the “cultural junk” we seem to prefer. Carey’s cultural cringe is part of a great tradition, (and one to which Carey’s claim to belong is, I think, dubious). Australian intellectuals, artists and authors, many of them expat, have always been contemptuous of the Aussie predilections for beer and barbecues over boffins and books, and more broadly of Australia’s contempt for intellectuals.

I too lie awake at night fretting about the unhallowed masses who read nothing but junk, and whose nearest approach to high culture is that guy from Masterchef who wears a cravat. And I too treat with a certain misgiving the statistical finding that what with digital books and latte-enhanced book emporiums we are reading more than ever. However, I think Carey’s brand of elitism (which borrows heavily from Patrick White) is unhelpful, and unreflective of literary history.

A bestseller list, or a top 100, or a ‘Borders recommends’, is always going to be an eclectic mix of the good, the great, and the ordinary. That’s because reading matter always has been. Since the invention of printing and the subsequent spread of literacy, reading has been inherently democratic, and democracy, as bestseller lists remind us, inherently involves giving equal weight to the great and the very, very ordinary. Carey wants 14-year-olds to read Shakespeare and Dickens. No doubt 14-year-olds in the 17th century and the 19th were exhorted to read Horace and Sophocles instead of ‘popular’ authors. If Dan Brown is our Dickens it’s a pretty sad indictment on us, but it doesn’t mean that Dickens has vanished from our cultural landscape. He is still there, and anyone who wants to can pick up a cheap edition or download a cheaper file. How democratic is that? A 14-year-old who is lucky enough to discover Shakespeare can pursue her newfound taste to her heart’s content; and no doubt he will lead her to other magicians of the language whose version of human experience is indestructible and irreplaceable. Nothing is stopping her but the serfdom of her peers in the feudal sway of junk.