Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Mystery of the Missing Readers

[gary daily col. 27 July 28, 2002]

“Self-knowledge always requires conversation.” - Martha Nussbaum

Two discussions of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” selection) took place this past week. The discussions were held on Monday, July 22, at Boo’s Crossroads Deli and on Tuesday, July 23, at Coffee Grounds. Local businesses (and I would be amiss if I didn’t add Harry and Bud’s and Java Haute here) that have provided space and promoted these discussions are to be congratulated, thanked, and supported for their civic and book-minded consciousness.

At a time when the business culture of America is taking deserved lumps for its clumsy venality, these local entrepreneurs acknowledge that reading and discussing good books creates intangible benefits that cannot be quantified by any accounting practice. It would be great to hear about discussions of the “If All” book being held during lunch and coffee breaks in work settings around town. If such a discussion is planned or has been held where you work, please let me hear about it.

Some disappointment accompanies these feelings of pride. Chris Schellenberg of the Vigo County Public Library Community Services Department passed along the depressing news that no one showed up for one of the last discussions she held. Readers who have not participated in a discussion should certainly make an effort to attend a future discussion. Those of you have attended a discussion might consider attending others in the future. Different groups of readers always give rise to new ways of thinking about what was once fast and settled in our minds.

And isn’t it strange that people in general and, ah yes, men in particular, do not read more books? (Sales reports indicate that women purchase close to 70% of the books sold in this country each year. And women also make up the vast majority of book club members.) “Profits” accruing from reading good books do not require Arthur Anderson accounting sleight of hand. So why not read and discuss demanding books--books that furrow the brow and make you think, books that entertain in simple and complex ways, books that focus creative anger, and books that make you feel like you’ve accomplished something very important? Missing readers are a mystery.

Mystery yes, but explanations do come to mind. An idea I am presently toying with isn’t very flattering, probably not fair, and certainly not conclusive. But we are four months into “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” and there is strong evidence that this wondrous, life and community enhancing program is behind schedule. It's worth delving into the mystery of the missing readers because they are so pervasive in our aliterate culture. You probably have ideas on this question. Wish you would pass these along to me.

In “The New Yorker” a few weeks back, Malcolm Gladwell published an essay on corporate America with the intriguing title, “The Talent Myth: Are smart people overrated?” Gladwell ends up thinking they are. He runs down the evidence of companies becoming blindly obsessed with a “talent mind-set” approach to hiring and compensation. At this point he couples this errant “star” system with the work of Carol Dweck, a Columbia University psychologist. She finds that on Wabash Avenue and Seventh Street, and across the land, people believe that intelligence comes in one of two flavors: it’s either a fixed trait or it’s malleable.

Then Gladwell notes the significance of the linkage: “the way we conceive of our attainments helps determine how we behave.” More specifically, the stars of the corporate world, those who sally forth on the hobby horse of “fixed intelligence,” those who hold the view that “talent” is innate, complete, and unshakeable--these "Fixed" types have serious difficulties with circumstances threatening to their self-image. (I might add the observation that a whole Workshop/Seminar industry has sprung up aimed at slipping a little empathic bend into the "Fixed" souls of the world.)

Wrenching all of this out of context and shifting to the murky mystery of the missing readers, I’m ready to propose that aliterates, those who own the skill of reading but choose not to use it, are of the opinion that intelligence is fixed.

Fixed intelligence types range from presidents of large countries to those who are academic superstars in their own minds, they can also be found working as insecure underlings holding down entry-level positions. Status achieved and amounts of power held is inconsequential. Behavior tells the tale. Wherever the believer in fixed intelligence is found, he or she is very careful to steer clear of anything that might indicate their fixed views and visions are deficient, flawed or incomplete. Personal encounters with intellectual dissonance have the pain producing potential of messing with their smooth world of assurance.

Reading and discussing challenging books can reveal intellectual weaknesses and blind spots to the self and to others. “Malleables” welcome this and call it growth; the “Fixed” view types ignore and deride reading books that are not a part of their narrowly defined fields of expertise and skills. As psychologist Carol Dweck puts it, those with a fixed view of intelligence “care so much about looking smart that they act dumb.” Hollow comfort trumps the benefits of new challenges.

Ouch! How’s that for a bald and baldly delivered judgmental analysis of a certain strain of aliterates? But how would you explain the unwillingness of aliterates to change their bookless ways?

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