Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My heroes have sometimes been scribblers

OK, so often my heroes have indeed been cowboys.

Willie Nelson aside, though, they've often been scribes, too. And I fear they are an endangered species.

Oh, writers will always be around. Human beings have been swapping stories since the cave dwellers. But, I don't know. Ominous signs are everywhere.

Literacy has dropped dramatically among key age groups -- mainly middle aged men and those under 30. So have reading habits. But, let's face it. Our society as a whole doesn't value good reading or writing.

What? You doubt this? Well, let's think on it a minute.

Book editors (and reviewers) are disappearing from daily newspapers faster than subscribers. Heck, daily newspapers are disappearing. Magazine subscriptions have plummeted.

Look at television. By and large it has been a cultural wasteland for years. But, why do you think you've seen a preponderance of reality shows the last decade or so? They are cheap to make. Producers do not have to pay writers.

Jay Leno didn't just get a five-night-a-week primetime deal because he is popular. The network can save money reducing the number of expensive hour-long dramas.

All isn't bleak. "The West Wing," canceled in 2006, was literate and thoughtful. Pay TV boasts some fantastic shows (e.g. "Weeds" and "Dexter.")

This wasn't always the case. Literate programs were a staple of early television. "Playhouse 90" and "Climax," just to name two, produced live dramas, often either an adaptation from a novel or a well-written script (Rod Serling's "Patterns" is but one example.) And, speaking of Serling, even his "Twilight Zone" was one of the most engaging programs on television in the early 1960s.

Novelists like Herman Wouk and literary critics like Clifton Fadiman regularly appeared on the classic game show "What's My Line?" Hell, Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House, was a regular panelist.

The New Yorker magazine still prints short stories. But, it's nothing like the old days, or so I hear. Under the leadership of Mr. Shawn, the magazine once devoted entire issues to literary works, most famously Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."

Now, don't get me wrong. Most TV is harmless, if inane. My friend Dean Harned is fond of quoting Willy Wonka.

"A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men."

So it is. One of my favorite movies is "Smokey and the Bandit," certainly not an Oscar-winning screenplay. I once was all but addicted to "Dallas." Legendary Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes loved to read pot-boiler mysteries.

But, it says something about our culture that a recently-graduated high school student once boasted to me that he'd earned his diploma without ever popping open a book. It's worrisome that a remarkable amount of Americans can't even find the United States on a map. I told somebody the other day that I picked the one profession that doesn't pay and almost requires manic-depressive tendencies to execute.

Do yourself a favor. Even if you aren't a voracious reader, pick up a book in 2009. Subscribe to a magazine, even if it's a staple at the Wal-Mart checkout line. Put an HBO or Showtime show on your Netflix list. Visit the neighborhood bookstore or library. Buy a newspaper. (Or get the Shopper -- it's free!)

Trust me on this one -- reading is often much better than the movies or the boob tube. You can all but create the visual image of the characters in your mind -- and that is ALWAYS better than the Hollywood version.

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