Some years ago Philip Roth despaired at the dwindling number of what he called ‘real’ readers left in the United States, readers committed to reading serious books written by serious writers.
By some arcane system of his own devising Roth came up with an exact figure, one which I forget, but by his calculations there were only somewhere around five thousand of these ‘real’ readers left in the country.
Roth was reaching a point in his career where he was finding it harder and harder to see the point in writing books anymore. He also was mourning the loss, I think, in the importance of books and literature in American cultural life. But then Philip Roth has gone through several periods throughout his long and storied career (the awards he has received by themselves take up one full page on his bio sheet) when he was in despair over the nature of the book business.
Who could blame him?
Depending on who’s doing the telling, serious literature has been in serious decline for pretty much ever, a victim of benign neglect or communal and/or commercial indifference. And as many now know, Roth finally gave up writing altogether a couple years ago, and recently gave up (or so he says) reading, too.
Philip Roth threw this ‘five thousand readers’ number around for some time until a friend pointed out to him that while five thousand might not seem like a lot, if he was to line up all those people and have them pass one at a time through his living room, while he shook each of them by the hand, that by the time he got to the end of that line, Roth — any writer, for that matter — likely would be reduced to tears.
Neglect, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading