Of Proust and Seuss.
Perhaps it is merely a matter of mood--mine is unaccountably cheery of late--but I do not believe that things literary are as dreary as Cynthia Ozick ["Literary Entrails," Criticism, April] might have us understand. Ozick is certain, for example, that literary criticism is not happening. By this she means that one will not find, in the cultural air, the quantity and quality of conversation that she claims prevailed half a century earlier when her avatars--Trilling, Kazin, Howe, Wilson--were all reviewing regularly.
Born a half-century after Ozick, I have a different sense of what one might reasonably expect of literary culture: I expect very little in the particular, by which I do not mean that I expect less than I used to. "No teacher in grammar or high school ever so much as hinted that reading was a normal activity," wrote Guy Davenport in "On Reading." Books, it seems to me, were never the interest of the majority--any majority.
Like playing competitive tennis at a world-class level or composing polyphonic music in one's mind, reading a book is--to generalize James Wood's particular feeling about reading Saul Bellow--a special way of being alive. I do not think, though, that people will be convinced to do it by more and better book criticism, any more than I believe, as Arthur Krystal suggests in his June letter, that writing's enduring value to a society can be measured, seismically, in its "cultural resonance."
Reading resonates with individuals first and still, and always with a minority. For to hear a story--descanted by a rhapsode; related around a campfire--requires only ears, whereas to read a book, whether by Proust or by Dr. Seuss, demands work: most everyone has the former, and most anyone despairs of (or hasn't a taste for) the latter. As a delivery device for stories, the book is a recent innovation, one that allowed a Roman form of story. telling--the novel--to proliferate, very richly. All that has happened to our "literary culture," it seems to me, is that, lately, we have seen the rise of a better technological approximation of the campfire--the passive, story-absorbing state we have long preferred.