books that matter

The Washington Times offers a bleak assessment of literary culture on the US campuses:

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the best-selling titles on college campuses are mostly about hunky vampires or Barack Obama. Recently, Meyer and the president held six of the 10 top spots. In January, the most subversive book on the college bestseller list was “Our Dumb World,” a collection of gags from the Onion. The top title that month was “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” by J.K. Rowling. College kids’ favorite nonfiction book was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” about what makes successful individuals. And the only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” the choice of a million splendid book clubs.


Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they’re choosing books like 13-year-old girls — or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment.

Where are the Germaine Greers, the Jerry Rubins, the Hunter Thompsons, the Richard Brautigans — those challenging, annoying, offensive, sometimes silly, always polemic authors whom young people used to adore to their parents’ dismay? Hoffman’s manual of disruption and discontent — “Steal This Book” — sold more than a quarter of a million copies when it appeared in 1971 and then jumped onto the paperback bestseller list. Even in the conservative 1950s, when Hemingway’s plane went down in Uganda, students wore black armbands till news came that the bad-boy novelist had survived. Could any author of fiction that has not inspired a set of Happy Meal toys elicit such collegiate mourning today? Could a radical book that speaks to young people ever rise up again if — to rip-off LSD aficionado Timothy Leary — they’ve turned on the computer, tuned in the iPod and dropped out of serious literature?

Nicholas DiSabatino, a senior English major at Kent State, is co-editor of the university’s literary magazine, Luna Negra. As a campus tour guide, he used to point out where the National Guard shot students during the May 1970 riot. But the only activism he can recall lately involved anti-abortion protesters and some old men passing out Gideon Bibles. “People think we’re really liberal,” he says, “but we’re really very moderate.” Submissions to the lit mag so far this year are mostly poetry and some memoirs about parents. “The one book that I know everyone has read,” he says, “is ‘I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.’ ” So, no uprising unless the bars close early.

This is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Try to think of some titles that produced an oh-my-god-I-must-read-this-book-and-have-an-opinion buzz in Australia recently. Carpentaria? Perhaps, but only amongst a very narrow proportion of the population. Dead Europe? Maybe. But to be more definite, you need to go back a decade or so to books like The Hand that Signed the Paper or The First Stone.

Not coincidentally, The First Stone was non-fiction and the The Hand that Signed the Paper was read like non-fiction — that is, the debate revolved around its relationship to history and truth.  That’s because, I think, literature no longer appeals as a kind of secular religion and has instead become a specialised interest. There’s still undergraduates passionate about the novel but only to the extent that there’s undergraduates passionate about astronomy.  No-one claims that poetry will save the world, in a way they might have done in the first half of the century.

Which is connected to a second point, this time about politics. The Garner/Demidenko debates were about literature but they were also political. A resurgence of passion about books depends upon a resurgence of passion about politics. It’s not an argument made often enough, and yet it’s so obvious that the Washington Times article invokes it almost accidentally, moving from an assessment of campus literary culture to an assessment of campus political culture without missing a beat.

It’s not that literature and politics are the same. Of course they are not. A novel and a pamphlet offer very different ways of thinking about the world. Yet they both rest on the idea that thinking about the world matters. Which is why you’re much more likely to find an engaged literary culture during a period of political upturn.

Incidentally, it does seem like Israel’s attack on Gaza has rekindled the US student movement, to some degree at least.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. “No-one claims that poetry will save the world.” Not quite no-one Jeff. Tiny bands of believers hide out in unlikely places, relying mostly on the ripple effect. The only writer I could think of whose death might rock campuses is Neil Gaiman.

  2. Not to be overly argumentative, because I agree with the wider arc of this piece, but when have people ever claimed that poetry could save the world? I’m trying to think of a specific poetic movement, or an isolated poet, who has put forward that idea as a serious theme. I think poetic culture has generally been a bit negative about world building ever since Plato threw them out. Modernism, and the various forms around grouped about it, weren’t particularly positive about world-building. Of course, if I’m being too literal about what your remark here, then put this comment aside.

    It would be interesting to see sales figures and library borrowing numbers in the student age groups for the typical classics you read at uni. – ‘On The Road’, ‘Crime & Punishment’, that sort of thing. I wonder if they have declined or grown. It seems like a very hard thing to map out.

    I thought that ‘Silencing Dissent’ was a bit of a must-read for non-fiction, recently. Not sure about its sales numbers though. Andrew McGahan’s ‘Praise’ is going back more than a decade, but it was made into a film.

  3. One day comments will be editable, and you won’t wince at quickly typed sentences, and the world will be a better place.

  4. In the Great War, the Oxford Book of English Verse sold in great quantities to soldiers. Perhaps ‘saving the world’ isn’t exactly the right phrase but the young officers who earnestly discussed the finer points of Hardy in the trenches really felt that literature was one of the things in life that really mattered.
    By contrast, I can’t imagine that there’s much poetry being read by US soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.

  5. Maxine – that’s a noble idea. Unfortunately with phrases like ‘save the world’ I’m more likely to imagine a Hollywood blockbuster with someone like Vin Diesel or Daniel Craig muttering something like ‘Save the world … again?’ But perhaps that’s only my pop infected, culture industry ridden, etc. mind.

    Jeff – thanks for clarifying the point.

  6. PS. A ‘noble idea’ and a likening of phrase & sentiment to Hollywood action movie blockbusters. Am I oversensitive to feel slightly patronised?

  7. To say that “a resurgence of passion about books depends upon a resurgence of passion about politics” makes two rather questionable assumptions about literature.

    First, that literature belongs in books. Therefore, the only way to measure what people are reading is to look at the book sales. University students in this current age have a great deal of access to alternative and open-sources of information; whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I suspect they are using those sources.

    Second, while your post admits that politics and literature are not the same, you have argued that “thinking about the world” in the political sense is likely to produce “an engaged literary culture”. On the contrary, I say that you are imposing a political value upon literature which is, at the very least, open to further questioning.

    Literature is often defined in terms of its artistic or creative value. People with politically sensitive eyes and ears are, without a doubt, among the creative producers of literature. Barack Obama is surely one of the finest and most inspiring orators of our time. If uni students are taking such a huge interest in the man, as the Washington Post article suggests, then no-one need fear that political literature is threatened.

    Literature is not, however, limited to politics. If university students are ‘buying’ romantically inclined vampire stories, this only serves to prove that romantic literature is alive and well among a large group of young people, who like their predecessors, are taking an interest in ‘secular religions’ or more generally in ‘magic’.

    Finally, even if I accept that literature belongs in books that prompt me to think politically about the world, this does not support the statement that “No-one claims that poetry will save the world, in the way they might have done in the first half of the century”. At best, if I was among those who already believe that claim, I might shed a tear for the good old days, and I might even forget that this is the first half of the century.

    Poetry will save the world
    but for the past
    it is too late.

  8. Brad,
    Sure, students have access to the other sources of literature but it’s hard not to believe that there’s some correlation between what they’re reading and what they’re buying. I mean, uni students have always had the option of borrowing library books, haven’t they, so that doesn’t change a comparison of their purchasing habits in the past with today.
    On the second point, I wasn’t trying to suggest that politics and literature are the same. Quite clearly they’re not. It’s silly to say that a novel should be boiled down to a particular political message — if that were the case, why not just read a pamphlet instead?
    But literature, like all art, is about understanding the world, albeit with its own distinctive methods. It stands to reason that in a period when people were convinced that the world could be understood there’d be more interest in art.
    On the poetry saving the world bit, hey, it was a throwaway line, and I’m not even sure myself what it means. Bec, perhaps you might explain.

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