Reading Shakespeare, the Greeks, and the classics; reading for life-wisdom, nourishment, guidance and growth; reading to save one's soul and to make sense of oneself and the enigma of life -- this kind of reading rarely exists anymore.
Past generations, however, read for many, if not all, of these reasons. Reading was a sacrament that conferred upon those who partook of its grace something which nothing else, in some cases not even religion itself, could bestow.
This was a time when great literature and the humanities were Holy Writ, reverenced for embodying the spiritual legacy of the past; something eagerly sought after, lived with, and ruminated over for years as initiation into the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
One prepared oneself for immersion into the vastness of this Oceanic feeling by cultivating a hunger for life's ultimate questions, for hints to answers one sensed might be found in the hallowed tradition of reading, learning, and the reflective life.
This was a time when there was more silence in the world, when one could meditate upon the meaning of things, the purpose of life, and one's place in the universe. One cultivated an inner receptivity to higher aspirations as incarnated in the Western classical heritage that spoke to one's need for direction and lucidity amidst the confusions of life.
This was the age of the Great Conversation with the Past, the tradition of Great Books, the writings of antiquity and the literary classics of every age -- novels, plays, poetry, short stories, letters, essays, philosophy, history, and biography. It fostered an inner dialogue that went on quietly and unobtrusively in those homes that had a bookcase, a quiet corner, a special room, a library, an enclave to which one might retire to restore the spirit.
Not that this was the universal norm. There were many who didn't read at all for lack of time or inclination, or because other interests claimed their attention, or because they felt that life itself was their book. However, there were many who spent their leisure hours on what today would be considered serious reading because every day they felt compelled to draw closer to the marrow of life.
This is a tradition that today has not completely died out; it still exists, but in an attenuated form of those bygone days. It is a way of life that lingers on as a countercultural presence, bearing witness to an enduring ideal in a few homes in every community, where the old-fashioned values of reading, the discussion of ideas, and the inextinguishable life of the mind are kept alive in a post-literate America where the lights are slowly going out.
So what happened to reading over the past few generations? The usual answer is the explosion of popular culture after the Second World War -- TV, game shows, situation comedies, soap operas, films, music, cable, MTV, fluff news, "trash talk" radio, celebrity gossip magazines, drugs, fashion, sports, computers, the Internet, cellphones, Facebook, online shopping, material possessions -- "the good life."
This opened up a world of limitless possibilities of addictive distractions, which, in some cases, took over lives, leaving little time, interest, or capacity even to want to engage the mind by reading or reflecting upon the events of our time.
More significant, however, is the question of why this all happened. There are two explanations. The first is that popular culture was a diversionary tactic on the part of government, a premeditated design to distract Americans from what Washington, Wall Street, and the corporations were up to in colluding against the public.
It was all part of a grand strategy to narcotize Americans into passive acquiescence through a calculated policy of escapist entertainment, so that government could keep its citizens in the dark by means of a corporately-owned media about what America was doing to promote its corporate agenda both at home and its clandestine military operations, political interference, and economic depredations in third-world countries.
The second view, which dismisses the first as the overheated fantasy of liberal conspiracy theorists, claims that government controls neither its citizens nor the media in distracting people from high-minded pursuits or political awareness, but simply gives Americans the kinds of entertainment they want. People have the right to enjoy themselves howsoever they choose, and corporations, in tandem with government, allow this to happen.
Likewise, if people choose not to participate in popular culture, but to engage in serious reading or private pursuits, no one is stopping them, and certainly not the government. A man's home is his castle, and Americans are free to do whatever they please.
Even if the government wanted to control the news and the mind of its population, it couldn't, because people can choose to be politically informed from a wide assortment of media outlets. They are free to examine the issues of the day as critically and as open-mindedly as they desire.
As proof of this assertion, these are but a few of the magazines, journals, and media outlets for those seeking a conservative viewpoint on the issues of the day: ALEC, The American, The American Conservative, The American Spectator, Commentary, Fox News, FrontPage Magazine, Human Events, Modern Age, National Review, The National Interest, The New American, Reader's Digest, Reason, Regulation, Townhall Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and World Affairs.
For the liberal viewpoint there are these sources: AlterNet, The American Prospect, Atlantic, Democracy Now, Dissent, Harper's, The Huffington Post, In These Times, Jacobin, Mother Jones, MSNBC, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, NCR, PBS, The Progressive, Rolling Stone, Salon, Slate, Thom Hartmann, Truthdig, Utne Reader, Yes Magazine, and Z Magazine.
Conservatives claim that these two lists of choices speak for themselves in offering Americans a diversity of viewpoints. All one need do is to take the time to acquaint oneself with this spectrum of opinion to satisfy one's curiosity about what is happening, and why, both here and around the world.
Liberals counter that the average citizen lacks the time to do this and so must rely on the mainstream media for understanding events and their significance. However, the media are corporately-owned, with a vested interest in indoctrinating the public with a conservative bias that "manufactures consent" with prevailing orthodoxy, in the words of Noam Chomsky.
Moreover, liberal intellectuals maintain that they are routinely excluded from TV programs of political commentary, notably the Sunday talk shows, lest they challenge the conservative assumptions on which these discussions are based.
By refusing to invite individuals like Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Robert Reich, Michael Parenti, and other liberal thinkers to participate in these exchanges, the media force these discussions into a predictable conservative mindset that leads the audience to foregone conclusions.
However, if liberals were to join these discussions, they would expose the public to views never before heard on American television, something which conservatives and the media refuse to allow.
The result is that the public never hears an opposing viewpoint; indeed, it has no idea that one even exists. Instead, since political discourse is so overwhelmingly conservative in this country, viewers are offered only minor variations of conservative opinion by conservative spokesmen. This does not lend itself to the free exchange of ideas or open debate, but censorship and indoctrination that create the impression that no other viewpoint exists.
Liberals want access to these talk shows to have open discussions as befits a democracy, as do all Americans in the interest of fairness and for a fuller understanding of the issues. They want informed public debate about substantive issues and real-world options, not platitudes by spokesmen of only one viewpoint.
For example, liberals contend that we fought a revolution in the 18th century to free our nation from Old World monarchs, and that, later, on the battlefields of World War II, almost 300,000 Americans died only to have their sacrifice betrayed by today's politicians, who have turned our country over to banks and corporations.
These officials have sold their souls to people like the Koch brothers, modern America's de facto monarchs, who pollute not only our air and water, but also our political culture by bribing these officials and buying elections.
They contend that American democracy is dead and that 99% of the population feel helpless, demoralized, and exploited by a corporate state that has been corrupted by big money interests, which are doing as much to destroy our country as our adversaries did in World War II. The only difference is that these present-day adversaries are our own fellow citizens.
Politicians, with a few well-known exceptions, fail to speak out against this assault on our liberties, which they have sworn an oath to uphold, and that members of Congress, if it can be believed, even lobby on behalf of the very corporations that are exploiting our people.
The American People want straight talk and bold action. They want real democracy, not a whitewashed sepulcher, resplendent without, but diseased to the core. They want genuine choice, not the quadrennial circus that rolls into town with Wall Street candidates for the two main parties.
The whole world is watching as America takes leave of its senses and continues to corrupt its political institutions by more and more money. If this fundamental crisis in present-day America continues to be met by government inaction, belief in our democratic system will plummet still further.
This is one of the many liberal arguments never discussed on the Sunday talk shows. Are such questions worthy of debate on national television? Would Americans find them relevant? Do they go to the heart of what's wrong with our country? Would such shows be eagerly anticipated? Would many viewers tune in? Then why won't they happen?