My high school English teacher told us we should read novels because they were the means by which we could understand the thought processes of our fellow man through time. Television was evil. It was passive. It would lead to lung cancer, teen pregnancy, and our careers topping out as burger turner first class.
The tube did not rule the thinking person's mind, and so we needed to read and we should read novels. Not all novels were written strictly for entertainment. Some contained encoded messages from the past. They were not what they seemed, I suppose in the same way Calypso and Reggae comprise danceable protest songs. The good ones were worth reading. The bad ones were shims for unbalanced tables.
It was never clear to me how to tell the good novels from the bad. I knew only there were more rocks in world than pearls, and one should never waste his time trying to trade in basalt. The scarcity of good books made them valuable and usually it took someone to pick them out for you. Otherwise, far as I could tell the only characteristic feature of the good books was that they were nearly impenetrable.
Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf was a good book, by my teacher's standards. I remember reading it. I remember my eyes passing over the page, understanding the words. I remember closing the cover and thinking, "Well, that's that. I've read Steppenwolf."
My retention of Steppenwolf was worse than of a Macy's shopping bag's containment of a depleted uranium shell fired from an M1 Abrams armored vehicle. Four minutes after putting down Steppenwolf, I could not have told you what it was about. I did not enjoy reading it. I just know I did.
On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Issac Asimov's "Foundation" series, and still remember some thirty years later that Hari Selden was a psychohistorian, and that the drama of the discovery of Selden's message still remains with me. Though the Foundation series is not considered "good" literature it effected me much more than Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary or The House of Seven Gables. I did not understand The Stranger at eighteen, nor did I understand The Fixer nor could I keep myself conscious to get through more than two paragraphs of anything Thomas Hardy penned.
However, society recognizes that those works are good. Reading them leads to becoming cultured, to developing a balanced mind and becoming a more valued member of society.
This is where I'm supposed to say I learned how wrong I was about literature I found hard to read, but I won't. I've wallowed in dreck my entire life and I continue to do so. I have no compulsion to reread Jane Austen or the Brontes or even Siddhartha when it was the only book I could find in the lab at McMurdo. There is no doubt that in my later years I would better understand much of what I was made to read in high school. I just don't feel like making time for it. This could become my downfall. The forces of television are everywhere, ready to capture my brain for their own purpose.
But I keep reading. I must. Nick Hornby must be teaching me something about British thought at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Tracy Kidder's recent Vietnam memoir about his post-guilt-of-non-traumatic-stress syndrome is teaching me how we lust to be defined by our life's events that turn out less dramatic than we expected. Dave Eggers taught me that as long as you've had a rough childhood and can write fairly well, there's almost a Pulitzer in your future. Reading dreck may not get me anywhere but it improves my life by absorbing otherwise unoccupied hours.
Several years after my graduation my high school English teacher was arrested, convicted and jailed for having sex with his male students, which you might think invalidates some of the things he said about literature.His words still bear great weight with me irrespective of his crimes. I remember he taught me how easily duped we could be as a populace. How easily fooled we could be as individuals. That the only defense to being manipulated by outside forces was the development of a critical mind, and that reading was crucial in the development of the human mind.
Which makes me wonder about something recently quoted in the news.
"Appearing at a recent media conference, NBC president Bob Wright offered a novel rationale for the exclusion of liberal voices on cable news: Liberals don't watch TV."
Generally, I've stopped listening to the news. I remember when there was the idea that news organizations were supposed to report fact without colorization. That idea has faded over the past 20 years or so. Now, news is a product to be consumed. The asinine antics portrayed in the 70's film Network have all come true. There is no longer such a thing as news reporting without bias and that bias is defining the boundaries of our views. Proponents of the modern news magazine format hold that there has always been a bias in news reporting, we've just failed to recognize it until now. So why not just accept the bias, amplify on it, and call it being "fair"?
It is difficult for human beings not to omit, edit, change vocal inflection, or choose words that impinge their personality on the facts they're transmitting. Bernard Goldberg pointed out in his book Bias that U.S. network news has always been left-leaning without being conscious of it. Much has changed with the availability of pay TV. Successful cable talk shows are consciously right-leaning to cater to the audience which is typically 45% conservative to 35% liberal on all cable channels (not just Fox). (Gallup Poll)
Giving people what they want to hear has always been a money-making formula. It's very easy to change a channel away from your programming. Listening to something you don't agree with is not entertaining when one is tired after a long day at the office. So to hold people's attention, you'd better figure out how to agree with their internal mental state. The proliferation of conservative talk shows should surprise no one given the numbers. Of the people who watch television, most identify themselves as conservative, as Bob Wright pointed out. So the prevalence of right-leaning talk shows is simply an artifact of broadcasters catering to their audience in a way that maximizes return on advertising investment.
At some point, one presumes, telling people what they want to hear stops being "the news" and becomes something else. "Opinion" is the word that comes to mind, and as I remember from my high school English lit class, "opinion" is not news. News is objective fact. Opinion is not, which is why we have a different word for it. And I wonder after weeks, months, and years of being deluged by the likes of The Savage Nation and Air America, when we have normalized talk TV as our information source -- can the public still detect the bias? If we are habituated to Al Franken and Dr. Laura, do we notice the contrast between their blather and objectivity? Will the lack of opinion in the MacNeil / Leherer hour cause us to associate it with bad television because it is less emotionally entertaining?
I watch Mythbusters on TV. Sometimes Nova. That's pretty much it, because since high school I have a problem with TV. I am not a conservative even though I did vote for Tom Campbell, who may very well be the smartest, most deserving man ever to run for office on the Republican ticket in California. I detest talk radio. I do not have the energy to generate disdain that conservatives can muster. I do not believe the world would be better with my beliefs impressed upon the rest of the country irrespective of race, color, and creed.
The critical mind I have developed rebels against talk show dogma. The more someone insists I agree with them, the less I do. I loathe O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, and Coulter. These vicious egomaniacs believe in the fundamental lack of intelligence of the American populace and seek to substitute their views for my own.
But neither am I a liberal even though I voted for Dianne Feinstein -- twice. I never got through more than three pages of Proust. I don't enjoy Toni Morrison poems. Most classical music puts me to sleep. I do not believe everyone has the right to form a splinter group and develop a sense of outrage at the unconscious behavior of sections of society. I revile Carville, Franken, and Stephanopoulos. They are an impotent rebellion of sour individuals whose narcissism won't allow them to fathom how their incompetitence could have contributed to their fall from power.
It makes me wonder if anyone reads. What happened to critical thinking and understanding that listening to these blowhards has become the mainstream substitute for having a brain?
I'm going to keep reading Hornby and Kidder and Eggers even though they are not "good". I'll think for myself. I will continue to mistrust the judgement of anyone wearing makeup to fill the lines in their face.
I learned this behavior in Catholic school from a lay teacher who became a convicted child molester.