In Jonathan Franzen’s, “Perchance To Dream,” subtitled, appropriately, In An Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels**, he profiled the work of a former MacArthur Fellow, linguistic anthropologist, and professor of English and linguistics at Stanford named Shirley Brice Heath:
Throughout the Eighties, Heath haunted what she calls “enforced transition zones”–places where people are held captive without recourse to television or other comforting pursuits. She rode public transportation in twenty-seven different cities. She lurked in airports (at least before the arrival of CNN). She took her notebook into bookstores and seaside resorts. Whenever she saw people reading or buying “substantive works of fiction” (meaning, roughly, trade-paperback fiction), she asked for a few minutes of their time. She visited summer writers conferences and creative-writing programs to grill ephebes. She interviewed novelists.
Franzen noted that Heath’s research “effectively demolishes the myth of the general audience,” that is, “a large, eclectic pool of decently educated people who can be induced, by strong enough reviews or aggressive enough marketing, to treat themselves to a good, serious book.” What she found was the following:
For a person to sustain an interest in literature, …two things have to be in place. First, the habit of reading works of substance must have been “heavily modeled” when he or she was very young. In other words, one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same. On the East Coast, Heath found a strong element of class in this. Parents in the privileged classes encourage reading out of a sense of what Louis Auchincloss calls “entitlement”: just as the civilized person ought to be able to appreciate caviar and a good Burgundy, she ought to be able to enjoy Henry James. Class matters less in other parts of the country, especially in the Protestant Midwest, where literature is seen as a way to exercise the mind. As Heath put it, “Part of the exercise of being a good person is not using your free time frivolously. You have to be able to account for yourself through the work ethic and through the wise use of your leisure time.” For a century after the Civil War, the Midwest was home to thousands of small-town literary societies in which, Heath found, the wife of a janitor was as likely to be active as the wife of a doctor.
Simply having a parent who reads is not enough, however, to produce a lifelong dedicated reader. According to Heath, young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest. “A child who’s got the habit will start reading under the covers with a flashlight,” she said. “If the parents are smart, they’ll forbid the child to do this, and thereby encourage her. Otherwise she’ll find a peer who also has the habit, and the two of them will keep it a secret between them. Finding a peer can take place as late as college. In high school, especially, there’s a social penalty to be paid for being a reader. Lots of kids who have been lone readers get to college and suddenly discover, ‘Oh my God, there are other people here who read.'”
But upon hearing this, Franzen realized that he didn’t even fit the first pre-condition: he couldn’t remember either of his parents reading a book, except maybe aloud to him.
Without missing a beat Heath replied: “Yes, but there’s a second kind of reader. There’s the social isolate–the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview. People don’t like to admit that they were social isolates as children. What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you–because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren’t present, they become your community.”
Then, Heath commented on which type is more likely to become a writer:
According to Heath, readers of the social-isolate variety are much more likely to become writers than those of the modeled-habit variety. If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness. What’s perceived as the antisocial nature of “substantive” authors, whether it’s James Joyce’s, exile or J. D. Salinger’s reclusion, derives in large part from the social isolation that’s necessary for inhabiting an imagined world. Looking me in the eye, Heath said: “You are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world.”
Franzen’s reply? “I felt as if she were looking into my soul.”
** it appeared in Harper’s back in April 1996, six years before The Corrections was published