Over 40,000 people purchased over 160,000 books in two days at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, an inspiring sight that assuaged the fear of English teachers like myself that our efforts to increase reading are in vain. Arriving at the festival, I was initially encouraged by the amount of readers and writers crowding the Capitol building and the sidewalks of Congress Avenue. In several sessions, however, I was dismayed by the inability of many writers to give an answer for their vocation.
For these writers, writing is merely self-expression, a sentiment that recalls the Romantic aesthetic theory. Yet these writers would have little recognition of those predecessors because they boast of not reading. When asked by the moderator why his readers should care about his memoir, Alex Lemon from Texas Christian University admitted that he doesn’t expect anyone to care. It simply is no concern of his whether his memoir finds an audience—he is going to write and keep writing. Similarly, Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter series from which the acclaimed Showtime series is drawn, claimed no responsibility for what readers glean from his work. Whether serial killers are inspired by his grotesque portrayals of homicide is not his problem. He did say that he feels bad for the victims of such tragedy, but he is not guilty for encouraging the sociopaths. In a poorly constructed analogy, he likened his affect on violence to the potential of the Harry Potter series to provide magical ability to its readers. Unfortunately, the audiences of these writers were affected—they applauded and laughed and absorbed these statements as truth.
While these authors fetched full rooms, the tent for Thomas Cahill’s session unfortunately still had available seats. Author of the notable Hinges of History series, Cahill had taken a short break from writing history to tell the story of Dominique Green, a young man wrongly convicted and executed in Huntsville, Texas. When asked about this detour from his usual work, Cahill made a surprising claim. According to him, these works were connected because only in studying the Greeks and Romans in history could he understand how capital punishment was wrong. He claimed that capital punishment was our contemporary equivalent of human sacrifice. Though his comments will incite political debate, his ability to draw support from history, from literature, and from reason stood in stark contrast to those writers who could not connect their writing with anything outside of themselves. Unlike those writers who had no sense of the literary tradition or the affect on contemporary readers, Cahill acknowledged the relationship between the past and the present, and for this reason I think he will continue to be read in the future.
I used to ask my students about their favorite book, but the question was met with blank stares so often that I started asking about favorite movies. In an attempt to overcome the lack of reading in my classroom, I give extra credit (to the chagrin of many professors) if a student reads a book outside of class and writes a report on it—much in the way our elementary school teachers once encouraged our reading habits. While I’d love to complain that only my students are not reading, most of my friends and even some of my colleagues assume they don’t have the time. Azar Nafisi once remarked during a question and answer period of a lecture that our culture was in a sad state when people have endless hours to watch “American Idol” but not enough time to read War and Peace. She is right. For shows like “American Idol” or “Dexter” increase our self-indulgence while War and Peace or How the Irish Saved Civilization call on us to redeem the horrors of our past—to be good fathers and mothers, soldiers, monks, and heroes of the present.