Imaginative Classics in Review

As I take over responsibility of this column from A.L. (see his reviews on the Singularities Archive page) I’ve been feeling an increasing desire to create a series of articles in addition to my regular book reviews. For those faithful readers of Far Sector SFFH, and for you readers just joining us, allow me to walk you through my thought process. I’ll try not to overexpose you to my brain, otherwise mass confusion and hysteria will ensue. Just ask my wife.

Readership of literature is dropping in this country. According to a report entitled Reading at Risk released by the National Endowment of the Arts, less than 50 percent of the US population reads literature. All fiction, by the way, is included in this report, including romance, mystery, and science fiction. I strongly urge you to read the report for yourself. I won’t attempt to summarize the complete findings of the report, as that is not my purpose with this article, but I quote Dana Gioia, the Chairman of NEA, who says in the report’s preface that this “comprehensive survey of American literary reading presents a detailed but bleak assessment of the decline of reading’s role in the nation’s culture. For the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population now reads literature, and these trends reflect a larger decline in other sorts of reading. Anyone who loves literature or values the cultural, intellectual, and political importance of active and engaged literacy in American society will respond to this report with grave concern.”

Reading at Risk further details that despite the dramatic decline in literary readership, the number of adults who write creatively has actually increased from 11 million people in 1982 to nearly 15 million people in 2002. It seems oxymoronic to me that so many more individuals take time to write when the readership numbers continue to fall. After all, how can you write if you don’t read?

Now, I understand that every one of those 15 million people may be in that minority who still reads literary works. In fact, I would expect them to be. But my concern is this: with the availability of entertainment in so many mediums (film, television, video games, internet) what will happen to the foundational works of American and World literature? Will the stories that have driven civilizations and challenged countless generations to better themselves suddenly dissolve into a sea of bad action movies, role playing shoot 'em ups, and other forms of passive entertainment? And how will the great works of speculative fiction, since this is a science fiction and dark fantasy magazine, be affected?

Not only that, but how can modern writers continue to create great works of literature if they do not converse with great works of the past? Will future readers even have the capacity to appreciate such endeavors, or will they ban those works as “too difficult” or “too philosophical” as they turn to plot-driven, contrived works of convenience? I don’t intend to insult plot-driven stories. I love a good page turner with the rest of them. But why can’t we have character-driven, thought-provoking works as well? I also do not intend to insult readers. Let me make myself clear: we are not at the point of being what I call a culture of ‘stupid readers.’ I do think, however, that our society is approaching that state – is in the beginnings of that state even now. I’m assuming, if you are reading this article, that you share my passion for literature to some degree. We must take action now to ensure that reading doesn’t become a forgotten pastime. We must share our passion with our peers and with young people so the readership numbers begin to grow.

Thanks for sticking with me through all of that. Now here’s what I’m going to do. Along with my usually reviews, I invite you to join me in a continuing series of articles simply entitled “Review in Classic.” These articles will take a variety of forms. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. The Classic Review: A review of a work now deemed classic for its contribution to SFFH. Or, perhaps, a work that I am convinced will become a classic in the future.
  2. Author Focus: A short review of an important author with information about his or her most influential works.
  3. Topic Focus: Tracing important themes through different works and understanding how they impact current literature, television, and film. An example would be an article on dystopias such as Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and more.

This series will be as much a learning process for me as it will be for some of you. There are a number of classical works I have not read, and shame on me for my negligence! I hope you will join me in exploring these wonderful books. If you feel I am neglecting certain works or certain authors, I welcome and ask for your input. Just keep in mind that I can only write so many pieces, so it is going to take time to get to every book and every author who deserves attention. In fact, it’s most likely impossible to get to all of them . . .

Oh, yeah, one last note. Here are two great books to help you familiarize yourself with the historical development of science fiction and fantasy:

These books are light on commentary, but they are filled with beautiful illustrations, featuring art from Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and many more. If you are unfamiliar with science fiction and fantasy as genres, check them out. Or, if you’re a longtime fan, these books will help you relive some of the best works the genres have to offer. They are currently available at Barnes and Noble as bargain books.

So there you have it: a must read report from the NEA, my feelings about it, and my purpose for the Review in Classic. Ray Bradbury has said on many occasions that he is not in the business of predicting futures but preventing them. If action is not taken now, our society may not become one that burns books, but it will become one that devalues them. I can’t imagine living a life devoid of the pleasures of reading. I hope that neither can you.