Vollman on reading

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In the Feb/March issue of BookForum there’s a very interesting quote from William T. Vollman in regards to his new book, Poor People. His statements about the future of reading and of books is both bleak — that readers are losing their influence — and a bit overly optimistic — that people will read and write for the joy of it (as, opposed to, I guess political, imperialist or commercial interests). But he also seems to be describing a small group of people who are connected solely by their independent-mindedness; thus, they aren’t a pin-downable collective, but just a loose affiliation of people (perhaps in line with the “conspiracy of smart people”?).

Another thing he reminds me of is something a fellow grad student said to me about what happens to unspoken or unheard thoughts and ideas — do they just disappear? do they find ways of expressing themselves in unexpected ways?

The interview isn’t online, but here is the portion:

Bookforum: In Poor People, you write about being surrounded by people who can’t read your work. You’re a writer and also a publisher. What place do you think the book holds in our society?

Vollmann: I think that readers and writers are now simply an interest group. A relatively powerful interest group, but their influence is waning year by year. The good side of that, I think, is that it becomes increasingly likely that people will read and write only for the love of it. And that’s a very, very good thing. It’s likely that throughout history, most people have never been particularly well educated, and the world has gotten by somehow. Independent thinking is a category that almost by definition applies to a small number of people, because the great majority of people tends o think alike. So I can’t say I even find it that alarming that more and more of the people I know don’t read. It’s a little sad for me personally, but that’s only because that’s what I like to do. As I travel all over the world, and I meet people, let’s say in Yemen, for whom the only book that is at all important is the Koran, I think, well, they have very rich and interesting lives. Who am I to tell them that they should be any different? The average person is as smart as he or she needs to be. And that if we get in some terrible mess, then people are going to wake up and try to figure out what needs to be done.

I really love the novel World Light by Halldor Laxness. He is a great writer, and in that book he writes about a guy who is a true poet. He’s got this incredibly gifted sensibility; he really appreciates all the beauty around him. The only flaw happens to be that he writes terrible poems. So nobody can appreciate any of the stuff that goes on in his head. Maybe we’re all that way.

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