How literacy and literature are degraded by replacing outcomes with symbols of identity, status and virtue.
As a writer, voracious reader and bookstore employee, my entire life revolves around literacy and literature. I point this out so that the reader can understand that I am not against literacy or literature. However this level of familiarity has helped me view things from many angles, and sometimes books and reading do not come out on top. It is not my intent to suggest an end to literacy and printed products, but to recognize the limitations and pitfalls – and to prevent books and reading from slipping away from their actual merits into empty symbols of identity, status and virtue.
To begin to understand this we must first untangle the false equivocation that literacy and intelligence are the same. There are many types of intelligence and many of them do seem to correlate with literacy, but not all of them. Whether we are discussing psychological concepts like emotional intelligence or something more vague like ‘common sense’ or ‘street smarts’ we all have some general idea of how intelligence can take different forms. Yet even the ability to command reason seems to occur outside of the sphere of literacy.
Charlemagne and Genghis Khan are two historical examples of individuals whose achievements must have required great reasoning skills that were employed without the ability to read and write. However these examples predate the age of enlightenment, during which time literacy became far more widespread and has been equivocated with intelligence since; while great minds that couldn’t read and write have graced us even after that revolution in literacy.
Sojourner Truth was one of America’s first great champions of the equal rights of women and African Americans, as well as an abolitionist and former slave. Her ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ speech, delivered at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, is one of the most powerful orations in American history. Her work and influence led to eventual victories for women and slaves, and the Smithsonian Magazine named her one of the 100 ‘most significant Americans of all time’. All without the ability to read or write.
If you have ever been to an alternative wedding officiated by somebody who got their credentials from the back of a magazine or off the internet, then you can thank Kirby Hensley for that experience. Kirby was a self-styled preacher and lifelong illiterate. In his fight against organized religion’s monopoly on the ability to ordain religious officials, avoid taxation, and perform official duties like marriage and burial, Hensley created the Universal Life Church. That organization offers free ordainment to all who inquire, and broke up a monopoly by organized religion that even separation of church and state had not been able to. Meanwhile his other schemes and sermons, including two presidential candidacies, helped him achieve both public notoriety and cult status as a saint of eccentrics everywhere.
Even among modern celebrities like Tom Cruise, R. Kelly and Dexter Manly functional illiteracy is accompanied by incredible talent and success. While the link between literacy and intelligence/success is indeed incredibly strong, it is by no means absolute. If we focus on only the type of intelligence of the literate type, then we cut ourselves off from other kinds, when more might obviously be better. Then again…
Sometimes intelligence isn’t all it is cracked up to be, and often times less intelligent people can be more virtuous than those who get caught spinning in their own wheels of intellect and ambition. A world full of geniuses would probably not be as pleasant as you might think. Some of the most violent and destructive human beings in history have been geniuses. Perhaps we should refrain from singing the glory of intelligence and instead praise individual accomplishments, regardless of the amount of intelligence involved.
If it is still difficult for you to frame these critiques in a context which is useful, I would suggest you find an unschooling forum, where literacy is used as a magical proof of the arguments of compulsive schooling advocates. Not only does compulsive schooling fail to achieve full literacy of its student populations, literacy alone is not an acceptable compromise for the other kinds of intellectual and emotional degradation that are embedded systematic functions of that institution. The inability think critically about what you read can be more harmful than illiteracy in that it invites conformity and replaces individual agency with a compulsive need for validation and approval.
That pattern of behavior may not benefit individuals or societies, but it certainly does benefit publishers. Publishers and ambitious authors are shameless panderers to marketing schemes.
A few months ago I discussed this a bit in the article, ‘Children’s Board Books: The Greatest Publishing Scam Ever Pulled’.
“Do board books contain literary content? They often contain some semblance of it, but it is so reduced as to lose any merit as literature outside of its usefulness to the product itself. In other words, you would not buy a collection of stories created for board books in another format because those stories lose all value outside the context of the board book as a product.”
There are all sorts of books that are published, not for literary merit, but simply because they fit a market niche and guarantee sales. Whether it is a board book or one of the endless celebrity or novelty products, books without even the slightest hint of possibility to contribute to human knowledge and the betterment of our world are published at a higher rate than books with literary or human merit.
Then there is the outright opportunism. When a famous person dies I am always amazed at the speed with which publishers are able to throw together a product to capitalize off their death. If some vapid topic becomes trendy it will be formatted into a book just in time to make a few bucks off it before the public moves on. However the most disturbing opportunism that both publishers and authors butter their bread with are politics and political themes.
At any given time a list of best-sellers will include books with strong themes about race, gender and nationality. More often than not the message is itself a positive one, asking us to examine the lives of people not like us, so we can learn from their experiences. I do not have a problem with that, in and of itself. However I become suspicious that there is so much repetition on these themes, by authors and publishers. What is a valid use of literature to promote human progress often feels like a frenzy of opportunism feeding off people’s good intentions. Titles and authors become symbols of the buyers identity, status and virtues. Money and fame are achieved by spoon-feeding people signals of their own self-worth one purchase at a time.
I am not just disturbed by the opportunism, but by what often gets lost in the process. Uniqueness, innovation and challenging concepts must all take a back seat to a literary populism contrived by marketers. Maverick writers and thinkers become less likely to get published, or to get equal promotional backing when they do. What emerges is a literary echo chamber in which conformity and uniformity are promoted through the exploitation of good intentions. Ideological mutations which help us evolve are drowned out in a sea of celebrity book club titles.
This is why as a writer, reader and bookstore employee, it completely disheartens me to see literacy and literature reduced to meme-like celebration. By ignoring the complexity of what connects literacy with intelligence and human goodness, and books with literary merit, what we have come to celebrate are often empty symbols contrived by opportunists and fueled by misguided goodness. It should not be simply that you are reading and writing, but precisely what and why you are reading and writing, as well as the outcomes that it produces, that merits celebration. And that becomes hard to sort out amongst all the marketing manipulation and greed and misguided signalling, so if we are to identify and honor what gives literacy and literature meaning and value, we need to step away and examine the myriad of motivations and outcomes by everyone involved.
Those things of greatest value to us are the things that require the greatest amount of examination. It is not because I dislike or doubt in literacy or literature that I wrote this, but because I love them and want to preserve what is valuable about them in a market and culture that has lost sight of what really matters. If you love them as much as I do then you owe it to yourself to honestly examine these criticisms before allowing yourself to react from bias, misinterpretation and instinct. Goodwill and curiosity go a long way in making life merrier.