People these days lament young people’s disdain for reading and, by extension, writing. Quite a few of today’s young people secretly indulge in writing poetry that will never be published, probably because they seek distraction elsewhere. It seems that in the West, and especially in America, all the best-selling authors are retired celebrities. The list of retirees who write is long, starting with politicians and continuing with businessmen, economists, and the wives of famous baseball players or golfers. Each has an enthralling tale to tell that is worthy of publishing only if there’s a success story behind it. That is why Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, published a book at the end of his long and successful career. Had the financial crash of Lehmann Brothers happened before the release of his book, he might have stopped the presses, since he presided over the economic policies that led to the financial avalanche of September 17, 2008.
The celebrity retirees are not the only writers these days. There are countless writers of countless genres of books. Yet studying these retirees reveals some of the ways books are consumed today. A successful retiree writes to enlighten young people about the secrets of success, not to share his thoughts with his equally famous colleagues or with individuals who are more knowledgeable. Writers these days are no longer the “inadequate, measly poor” who write for more worthy readers in the way the important philosophers used to write for princes and kings. They don’t address those whose youth is behind them and who are now plowing through life, trying to grab success by the horns. Writing is thus for young people who haven’t joined the workforce yet and are still attending school. They are expected to deal with books by owning and reading them.
Should this kind of writing receive the raving praise that is usually reserved for literature? It’s likely that the world of readers would answer in the affirmative. Different people desire different things from reading. No one would dare to classify Stephen King as one of the great literary giants, since his writing appeals to more naïve readers. You will find many people who will resist his nomination for a Nobel Prize. Others, however, would argue for promoting him from a third-rate to first-rate novelist. Other writers are not even lucky enough to have this kind of debate for or against them. One such writer is John Grisham, who claims that he’s the best-selling author in a country where no one reads. And this is a profoundly revealing claim. If John Grisham’s novels enjoy record-breaking sales, then somebody out there must be reading them. Yet lumping Grisham’s writing in with that of lower caliber authors makes the latter’s writings feel like a miser’s banquet: a gram of sugar and a ton of dry wood. In reality, though, people who read both King and Grisham are not real readers (although in the case of Grisham, some “professionals” might take interest in his work). If we maintain that Grisham’s readers are not readers, then the same goes for those who follow Greenspan’s words, since both groups of readers are stuck in a stage of instructional manual reading. A Greenspan reader might or might not be faithful after graduation. They are obliged to read him.
And so, there are books that resemble street signs or flight manuals. They have broad appeal among general readers and “professionals,” but they don’t touch readers. Greenspan’s book reads like traffic regulations—stern and clear-cut to make everyone comply. A failure to learn it is a failure to profit. The same applies to pop novels, which resemble the morning news: they both provide just enough detail to give the audience a passing familiarity with events. It is truly odd that John Grisham’s movie adaptations outnumber all of Paul Auster’s published works.
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