Literary Awareness

Today at The Elegant Variation, during the course of Kevin Smokler’s appearance via the Virtual Book Tour, there was a heated though civilized thread about whether the infamous Reading at Risk report issued by the BEA was useful or even genuinely reflective of diminishing literary awareness. Arguments concerning the methodology and the resultant media reaction (which Smokler contends is equivalent to hyperbole involving those darn kids who listen to rock and roll back in the day, a sentiment I certainly agree with) were unloaded. But the central question of whether or not the everyday world is aware of authors remains not only unanswered, but largely unexplored on an empirical basis.

In a unconnected post on the same topic, Sara at Storytelling has a very interesting idea in response to some of the raging debates that have been going on at the LBC. She has a list of ten authors: five of whom are recognizable, five of whom are not. She wants people to go outside with this list and see how many people can recognize the names. She’s enlisted her daughter to posit the list to fellow students in her high school.

I think this is an excellent idea. For many of the same points that Sara made, whether there exists a “crisis” or not (depending upon your definition of the term), it would be a fascinating (if unscientific) experiment.

The list of authors is:

1. Chris Clarke
2. James Robinson
3. Margaret Atwood
4. Erik White
5. Sue Kidd
6. Michael Chabon
7. David Gardener
8. Philip Roth
9. Kate Atkinson
10. Joanne Mitchell

Tomorrow, I plan to ask fifteen random strangers not only if they have heard of these authors, but whether they can name a book that was written by them. And just because I can (and because I’m knee deep in his books), I’m adding an eleventh name: William T. Vollman.

I will post the results here. But for those who are interested in getting results, I would highly urge you to do the same in your respective regional areas. (I’m based in San Francisco.)

My thinking is that the results may surprise us. But the proof resides in carrying out the experiment.

[UPDATE: Ron Hogan suggests that Bookmark Now fails to tie in the “Reading at Risk”/literary awareness alarmism into its scheme of essays.]


  1. Hmm. Out of all of those I know Atwood, Chabon, Roth and Vollman. I have never actually read a word by any of them, though. The remainder are complete mysteries to me.

  2. I know the same 4 James knows, and also have read none of them. Well I know Atkinson now, but only because of the LBC.

  3. I have a great deal for respect for the people (Paul, Kevin & Ed) who engaged the issue(s) arising from the RAR report at Mark Savras’ site. But I am once again searching for the point (admittedly this might be my failure of imagination or an axiological blind spot) of this unpacking yet another claim that reading is dying out, literature is endangered, and attendant apocalyptic claims. I know some of these scrums arise out of frustration but is the point to arrive at some prescription for this (allegedly) dreadful state of affairs?

    Personally, I do not buy this Sturm und Drang angst laden view of the world of literature. Dress this chicken-little message up with all kinds of modern (bad) social science that still does not prove (a key word) much.

    So there.

  4. Also ask 15 (random?) strangers what the capitol of Montana is and what a thespian is and who won the Battle of Mukdan.

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