Doris Lessing’s reaction to winning the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature included (after a rather inflamed exclamation of “Oh Christ!” when delivered the news) a reluctant acceptance coupled with a scathing Nobel lecture that managed to insult the award, the other recipients of the award and the literary canon as we know it, all in under 40 minutes. That alone should tell you about the type of writer she was.
I was first introduced to Lessing in my English 298 course, which explored the value of literature over the course of the semester. In her Nobel lecture, Lessing compares the reading habits of students from a school in Zimbabwe to those of students in a London boys’ academy. Lessing describes the thirst for literature she observed in Zimbabwe before, contrasting this desperation with the “half-used” library in the affluent North London school, highlighting the situational value of literature to readers. However, Lessing goes on to discuss how, even with this disparity in interest in the books they’re provided, the London students still have a leg up in writing. She points to her fellow Nobel Prize winners, all of whom grew up surrounded by books, using that fact to claim that writers are born only in households with books. And as such, even as the London students take their resources for granted, they will be the ones to win literary awards in their future.
Lessing’s observation of educational disparity and lack of access to books perpetuating the class hierarchy can be applied to literary history far before her time. Since the birth of writing, and consequently, reading, written language has served as a tool to record the great deeds of kings, honor gods and document laws. This has created a distinction between the literate who can receive these teachings and the illiterate who are not granted access to an education, such as lower economic classes and women. The perpetuation of educational inequality and all it impacts (income disparity, gender roles, etc.) are products of this distinction.
Though book and tome collections remained exclusive for many centuries, the proliferation of libraries in the 18th century greatly increased access to books in developed countries. The rise of public libraries and increased accessibility to written work is the reason reading can now even be a hobby for children, and that there can be a whole genre of books tailored toward them.
As children mature, their literary needs will mature with them. What started with S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” in 1967 has branched out into “classics” from the 1990s and 2000s such as “Harry Potter,” “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” with authors like Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo leading the next generation of YA fiction. Since the emergence of the term ‘young adult’ in the genre’s golden age of the 1970s, authors flocked to the relatively new market of book readers, causing the YA and dystopian genres to take over bookshelves at every local bookstore as the second golden age of young adult fiction began in the 2000s. The transformation sequences often associated with young adult fiction — whether that be from real to magical, child to adult or friends to lovers — parallels the transition period teenagers endure and is hypothesized to be the reason for the genre’s large following.
And what has the age of technology done to reading? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, leisure time spent reading has decreased by 19.67% in 2019 as compared with 2009. This figure includes news, much of which has migrated from paper to screens, but the decline in “deep reading,” or, according to Sven Birkerts, “the slow and meditative possession of a book,” may have decreased even further. And it’s not as though we’re unable to immerse ourselves in new literary worlds as we once did in middle school. Our rewired brains have just become unaccustomed to long storylines and eventual gratification, driving us to avoid books in favor of more instantly rewarding pursuits, much like the North London boys and dusty library Doris Lessing described in her lecture. We appear to be in a type of reading Ice Age at the moment. It is now time to melt the ice that has settled over reading culture.
My English 298 class left me with several contradictory opinions on how literature should be valued and by whom. While 1999 Nobel Prize winner in literature Günter Grass may argue that written thoughts, much like laboratory rats, are the basis from which society creates monumental change, or some other such grand declaration of the sort, I offer a far more introspective perspective. Escapism, learning, a cure for boredom and comfort are all respectable expectations from reading, and it doesn’t hurt that reading has been shown to reduce depressive tendencies.
So while I enjoy being told that reading is “totally my aesthetic” and that I’m “giving light academia,” I propose that we all take advantage of the increased accessibility to books that has come with the Digital Age. Either push through that half-finished book lying at the corner of your desk or start making headway through the ridiculously long To Be Read list sitting in the Notes app on your phone. As it turns out, reading is the best way to recover our lost attention spans while proving to naysayers like Lessing that we students do in fact know the value of literature.
Reva Lalwani is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org