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COMMENTARY

The oldest and newest story in the world

Outspoken Nobel laureate Doris Lessing decries the decline of that once-revered pastime: reading.

January 16, 2008|Julia Keller | Chicago Tribune

When Doris Lessing accepted her Nobel Prize in literature last month, she wrote a speech that was so searingly eloquent, so blazing with anger, so impassioned, that the ocean temperature around Stockholm -- just this once, unrelated to global warming -- must have risen a few degrees in response to the heat.

Her address -- delivered on her behalf by her British editor because the 88-year-old author wasn't up to the trip -- is an elegy, and a somber and powerful and heartbreaking one to boot. You can read Lessing's address at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2007/lessing- lecture_en.html.

Lessing is mourning not an individual, but an activity: reading. "It is common for young men and women to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some specialty, for instance, computers," she says.

Lessing contrasts that state of affairs -- one in which nations such as Great Britain and, by implication, the United States, have many books but few people who seem inclined to read them -- with the women and men in impoverished countries such as Zimbabwe, the region in which Lessing grew up. There, she says, the population yearns for books, dreams of books, endlessly rises up on tiptoe to stretch for books that always seem just out of reach.

"I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a black writer," Lessing recalls. "He taught himself to read from the labels of jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. . . . We are talking about people hungering for standards of education beyond them, living in huts with many children -- an overworked mother, a fight for food and clothing."

Yet still they think of books, need books, desire books.

Who reads anymore? Why the disparity? Is it simply the human habit of taking for granted whatever lies in heaps around us, while the things we lack acquire an exaggerated significance?

The year 2007 was, in many ways, a watershed one in literary history, a year that saw more and more newspapers take an ax to their books coverage. A year that saw public libraries reduce their hours, that saw more and more independent bookstores close their doors for the final time, that saw publishers shake their heads over moribund sales. We know these stories well. We've heard them so often that they just kind of blend into one big dismal blur.

The news about books is not only bad news; it's old bad news. It's not even scary anymore. It's just boring. It's too familiar to cause shock. Just bemusement.

But then one starts to think back through the great writers who died in 2007, those who will write no more. The stark difference between life and death seems vaguely analogous to another kind of polarization: the wide gap between the attitude toward reading in the developed world and the attitude toward reading in a place such as Zimbabwe, between an orgy of choices and a radical curtailment of possibility. And one begins to understand why Lessing went out on a limb and risked sounding curmudgeonly and out of touch.

She did it because the oldest story in the world -- who reads anymore? -- is also the newest story in the world. It all depends on what world you're talking about.

In countries yet to be blessed by our prosperity, literature is no frill. Books aren't a luxury. They are the bridge between individual and community, between community and world. They are vital. For would-be writers who grow up without books, without the chance at self-expression, it is almost as if they died before they lived.

"Voices unheard," Lessing muses in her talk. "It is not possible to estimate this great waste of talent, of potential."

Among the writers who passed away last year were Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer, giants by anyone's reckoning, along with David Halberstam, Julia Briggs, Madeleine L'Engle and Elizabeth Hardwick. Halberstam's journalism was bighearted and fearless.

Briggs, a British academic, wrote a superb intellectual biography of Virginia Woolf. L'Engle was the author of "A Wrinkle in Time," one of the best young adult novels of all time, as well as many spiritual memoirs. And Hardwick, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, also crafted novels, essay collections and, most recently and most wondrously, a short biography of Herman Melville.

In lands where both people and wallets are plump, books can be overlooked. Elsewhere, though, as Lessing reminds us, the affection for print is continuous and energizing -- even life-sustaining.

"It is our stories," she says, "that will re-create us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed." But first, of course, those stories must be read.

Julia Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune

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