On America’s literacy problem

An illiterate Western populace really explains a lot about the time we live in. But how serious is it in America? Library Journal digs in. (PS, I recognize there are many more factors to intelligence than literacy, (and many more factors to illiteracy than intelligence), but the image was too good to pass up. And frankly, there are a lot of Idiots around.)

According to the International Literacy Association, there are 781 million people in the world who are either illiterate (cannot read a single word) or functionally illiterate (with a basic or below basic ability to read). Some 126 million of them are young people. That accounts for 12 percent of the world’s population.

This is not just a problem in developing countries. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 21 percent of adults in the United States (about 43 million) fall into the illiterate/functionally illiterate category. Nearly two-thirds of fourth graders read below grade level, and the same number graduate from high school still reading below grade level. This puts the United States well behind several other countries in the world, including Japan, all the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the Republic of Korea, and the UK.

The NCES breaks the below-grade-level reading numbers out further: 35 percent are white, 34 percent Hispanic, 23 percent African American, and 8 percent “other.” Nor is this a problem mostly for English Language Learners. Non-U.S.-born adults make up 34 percent of the low literacy/illiterate U.S. population. New Hampshire, Minnesota, and North Dakota have the highest literacy rates (94.2 percent, 94 percent, and 93.7 percent respectively), while Florida, New York, and California have the lowest (80.3 percent, 77.9 percent, and 76.9 percent respectively)

Overlooked female comic artists

I am generally a proud nerd, one that is open about my sex-appealingly-questionable predilections and history (at least nowadays), but what holds me back from participating in the wider community of geeks across the globe is the loud, abusive, toxic core of radical fans who ruin it for everyone.

There just seems to be a higher frequency of truly terrible people in nerd culture. But is it higher or just louder? Or is it maybe just a higher frequency of those without the social skills to hide their bigotry and hatred, because those who are marginalized by their social ineptitude already suffer the consequences of their toxic behaviour — ie, social exclusion — and therefore have no incentive to act like better humans? (Sort of like a child who only gets negative attention from his parents and so starts acting up to get any attention at all.) But I digress.

What I mean to say is, even though there’s a terrible radical core of toxicity in the nerd/fan culture world, there’s also just plain old patriarchal scripts that exclude plenty of different folk, but (across all racial, ethnic, and political spectra) always, ALWAYS, women.

This exhibition looks at fantastic women artists excluded from comic book history.

Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back is a group exhibition at the Society of Illustrators featuring more than 50 female cartoonists, from the early 20th century trailblazers to plus-size superheroes, queer graphic novels, wartime romances and flapper-era cartoons, all of which go outside your typical superhero format.

“I think there are a great number of voices out there, and people want to hear this diverse range,” said Kim Munson, the exhibition’s co-curator. “I hope this will continue.”

The exhibition is divided into two sections: the history of women cartoonists, dating back to the early 1900s, and contemporary comics from the 1970s to present day. Though the society is closed to the public during the pandemic, the online version shows a selection of curated artworks, which will be on view until 24 October, and will soon include a video tour.

The first part of the exhibition looks at roughly 80 artworks from the historic collection of California-based cartoonist and collector Trina Robbins. Her collection includes cartoons by women in the flapper era, the second world war and 1950s romance comics, among others. Robbins has single-handedly rediscovered an entire generation of artists, some of whom are only now being recognized.

The novel is NOT DEAD, thank you very much

Steven Beattie, a guy who is smarter than your av-er-age bear, takes on Tuesday’s post subject about the death of the novel from over at his blog That Shakespearean Rag, pointing out that the guy who wrote the article is older than dirt and probably speaks like a colonial tourist-explorer in a gentleman’s literary society club, circa 1919. (That last part is my own assumption, but can’t you just picture it? “Oh yes yes. Rather! I’m sure my savage guide would get a good chuckle from your jibe about turbans here in chapter 145, my good man! Would that he could read a civilized language and were allowed in here to hear it read in the authors own voice! Guffawfawfaw.”)

Insert old white dudes here.

The bio at the bottom of Joseph Epstein’s latest diatribe about the rottenness of modern culture reads, “Joseph Epstein has been writing for Commentary for 57 years.” While this is clearly meant to sound valedictory, it strikes a discordant note, coming as it does at the close of a piece from the May 2020 issue of the vaunted American journal in which Epstein returns to a well he’s drunk from a few times too many in recent years, a well that contains water gone stale and putrid.

Those familiar with Epstein’s oeuvre will find his latest absolutely unsurprising. A noted curmudgeon and arch conservative (his bylines include the stalwart right-wing paper the Washington Examiner) Epstein was booted as editor of The American Scholar by, in his words, “academics who had an investment in feminism, black history, and gay and lesbian studies.” The former editor goes on to say that he “mostly treated these subjects in The American Scholar by ignoring them.”

This admission is telling, given his argument in “What Happened to the Novel?” (Which repeats, not incidentally, elements of his argument in the title essay of his 2018 collection The Ideal of Culture.) The crux of that argument is that western culture has been denuded and desiccated as a result of the general public turning its collective back on the towering literature of the western canon. “We have no modern Balzac, no Stendhal, no John Dos Passos, novelists who created characters ranging across the social spectrum, along the way giving one a feeling for a great city or the fate of a nation,” Epstein writes. “Novelists of an earlier time had a godlike mastery over vast stretches of knowledge, experience, intimate life that has long been missing.”

This is your brain on books

I sometimes try this tactic with students, talking about the release of endorphins that happens when a rhyming contract is completed, etc., but mostly they seem to want to think it’s a spiritual thing and not a matter of simple chemistry/mechanics. Whatevs. Science says your brain is doing lots of crazy shit when you read a good book, and I happen to hold with science.

It turns out when we’re immersed in a great book, it’s not just the parts of the brain that deal with language processing that are hard at work. In fact, when we’re deeply engaged with a story our brains mirror the actions and feelings of the characters. So if someone in the novel you can’t put down is swimming, the sections of your brain that would light up if you yourself were paddling across a pool also activate.

“In what is surely one of the more intriguingly titled articles in this research, ‘Your Brain on Jane Austen,’ the scholar of 18th-century literature Natalie Phillips teamed with Stanford neuroscientists to study what happens when we read fiction in different ways,” writes Wolf. “Phillips and her colleagues found that when we read a piece of fiction ‘closely,’ we activate regions of the brain that are aligned to what the characters are both feeling and doing.”

Or, in other words, when you read about Anna Kareninaleaping onto the railroad tracks, parts of your brain involved in motor control quite literally leap with her. When you read about a silky dress or rustling leaves, sections of your brain dealing with sensory perception activate. At a basic brain level, we really do experience the same thing the characters do. We don’t just understand a book — on a neurological level, we live it.

Do yourself a favour and marry a bookworm

I mean, if you’re the marrying sort. I am. It’s great to be married to a bookworm because there’s at least one thing you agree isn’t part of the rest of the house’s mess: books. Of course, you may read this article and ask yourself if these two are bookworms in the sense that they love literature or if they’re bookworms in the sense that they love stories that happen to be contained between covers, but regardless, they bonded over books. Stop being so cynical and judgmental, you. (I’m talking to my brain.)

There’s an episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel where a woman at a drag show gives Midge the name of a therapist and tells her they worked miracles for Sylvia Plath. When I realized my husband didn’t know who Sylvia Plath was, he patiently paused the television while I gave him the abridged version of her life story and read him “Daddy.” It didn’t matter to me that he wasn’t familiar with her work; it mattered that he was willing to learn and listen just as I have when he breaks out facts from his nonfiction on politics and military history. I love that seven years into our relationship, we’re still teaching one another things on a daily basis.

On giving up

Do you ever give up on a book? I do. All the time. And this research seems to attribute that to some cocktail of genetics and social scripting because I have an outie instead of an innie. I guess. Mostly I give up on books because: 1) they are impenetrable and alienating (Finnegan’s Wake — my record is like page 32 or something), 2) I find them offensive for some reason, but not in a way that compels me to read more (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda), 3) they are poorly written and/or facile (50 Shades of Grey — which also might overlap with this next one), 4) they bore the ever-loving fuck out of me (insert 95% of books here), and 5) (especially lately) I am aware I have less time ahead than behind and I am not going to spend what remains on anything that doesn’t zap my soul like a fork stuck in an electrical outlet. Simple, and not at all related to my balls.

Women persevere, men give up and literary fiction is kept for the weekend.

A pioneering attempt by publishers to rival Amazon’s knowledge of its ebook readers has proved what half the population already knew — men give up before page 50 while women keep going to page 100.

It also showed that only 5 per cent of ebooks are finished by more than 75 per cent of readers.

Is the novel dying?

Hey, here’s a new take on the “Is _____ dead?” thing that shambles back around every now and then: novels! Novels are dying now, too! Welcome to the club, novels. Let me show you around: the poets are over there, making fun of the playwrights, and this chest of drawers here is where we keep the printers and bookbinders. If you want to find a small bookstore owner, you might try down on “Obsolescence Way” where they tend to hang out around a remainder bin. Copyeditors you can find anywhere. They’re like stray cats.

If you admire fiction and consider it at its best richer than philosophy and novelists as the true historians of the present, but, like me, find yourself easily resisting contemporary novels, the reason, I believe, is that recent novels no longer do many of the things that once made them so glorious. They want a certain weight, gravity, seriousness that has marked the best fiction over the centuries. They have turned away from telling grand stories issuing onto great themes. Some may admire the cleverness or the sensitivity of certain living novelists, but none seems as God-like in his or her omniscience and evocative power as the great Russian or Victorian or French or American novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Art, we know, is not on the same onward and upward progress curve as science and technology, but might it, in the novel, be demonstrably regressing?