Discovering the Relevance of Words
I was scrolling through NPR’s Facebook page the other day, looking for inscrutable cartoons about political figures I’d never heard of and idly wondering what would happen if I turned on the radio and listened to them at the same time. I had just about ruled out the possibility that it would line up in a Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz sort of way and make me feel all stoned and was trying to decide whether it was more likely to cause a rip in the time/space continuum or just really bum me out when I saw something interesting:
“At 1.4 Billion, Romance Is By Far The Biggest Sector In Publishing.”
It’s not the first time this has been brought to my attention. This has been the case for as long as I can remember, and probably will remain so as long as publishing exists. Romance moves units. It’s a fact. Romance novels can really move units. Heaving, possibly throbbing, units. Do I need to hit it one more time or do we all see what I’m doing there? Innuendo is fun.
I remember when my creative writing professor pointed this out to us in college. I felt the obligatory adolescent anger at the very idea that the most successful area of publishing was also the most intellectually inert. It made me mad that these formulaic creations existed at all, let alone outnumbering everything else on the printed paged by a huge margin. I didn’t understand how it could happen.
Then I turned on the TV and watched American Idol.
I think I’m closer now to understanding that this is simply how things work. Commercial art will naturally gravitate toward the middle of the bell curve. That fact just makes the pieces and artists that aim for better stand out even more. What surprised me this time around was the oft repeated sentiment in the comments section that ‘at least people were reading SOMETHING.’
I’m not sure I understand this statement at all. Are the people sharing this thought afraid that we may all one day forget how to read? I think street signs, DVR menus and parking tickets will ensure we retain the ability to read, as a society. At least to a limited extent. Even if we devolve into a system of pictographs and telepathy, I think stop signs and Amazon ‘Buy Now’ icons will stick with us. It’s just a hunch.
Is it referring to the idea that any type of reading must be better for us, intellectually, than watching movies or TV? Agreed, those are inherently more passive mediums, but consider for a moment the fact that the popularity of the romance genre is in large part due to its formulaic and comforting nature. People read those books for the same reason people watch sitcoms. Because they know what is going to happen. I don’t see any intellectual benefit in getting this comfort from a book instead of a screen.
I tend to favor originality of thought and unpredictability in art, regardless of the medium. I don’t think anyone should feel any smarter after reading the last sentence of Mutiny From Behind than they should after reading a take-out menu. But then maybe I’m not quite over that resentment I felt as a 20 year old creative writing student knowing full well I’d never make a living at this.
Does it matter what we read? Or is just reading enough?