Jarrett Neal
BURGESS MEREDITH JUST WANTS TO READ

In his book length essay The Lost Art of Reading, Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin confronts a dilemma when his teenage son Noah, during an ordinary conversation over dinner, declares that literature is dead. For a man who charts his life through his enraptured engagement with books and whose livelihood depends on reading and convincing others to do so, this statement horrifies Ulin and sends him on a quest not only to prove his son wrong but to save him from the rising waters of anti-intellectualism that have been flooding the United States for decades. At one point in the narrative, Ulin describes actually rescuing Noah from a near fatal scuba diving accident, an incident that, read metaphorically, reinforces the fear and urgency that propel Ulin into a state of frenzy. Aliteracy coupled with hyperconnectivity, expressed in the culture’s overreliance on digital technology, have, in Ulin’s opinion, muddied the waters for readers and have contributed to the erosion of social discourse and critical thinking in the United States. Books and readers, thoughts and thinkers, promote an interdependence which sparked the genesis of civilization and elevated the human species from animal to superior, sentient being. Yet in the twenty-first century this symbiosis is imperiled by Western culture’s ever-declining readership amid the incursion of digital technology, and for Ulin the choice is clear: read or die.

I use The Lost Art of Reading in an interdisciplinary studies course I teach titled Culture, Diversity and Expression. The class is designed for freshmen, and Aurora University, the school where I am employed, offers the class in lieu of a traditional freshman seminar. Professors are allowed to teach the course in almost any way and utilize a variety of materials and readings so long as they relate to the course themes of culture and diversity in some way. I like to use The Lost Art of Reading for a variety of reasons. It is slim (one hundred and fifty pages), well-written, abundant in themes (political discourse, incivility, the power of literacy and the impact of digital technology on cultural discourse among them) and accessible in many ways. I happened upon the book at a pivotal juncture in US cultural exchange. Barack Obama had handily won the 2008 presidential election two years earlier and was locked in a perpetual stalemate with intransigent Republicans in the House of Representatives, led by John Boehner who found himself at the mercy of the Tea Party. E-readers were quickly finding their way into the hands of more and more consumers, rendering paper books obsolete. Borders Books and Music was on the brink of going out of business. The Great Recession had dug in deep: record unemployment and home foreclosures had all but toppled America’s economy. To Ulin, reading had never been more vital than at this brutal, crushing moment in American history.

And readership across the nation had never been in such a perplexing, precarious state. Sure, Americans were reading. Popular works by authors like Stieg Larsson, JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer were embraced by many Americans, yet all other forms of literature, including newspapers and magazines, failed to compete with the Internet, e-readers, social networking sites and the like. Reading as a cultural project diminished rapidly and “real readers”, as Ulin points out in his book, those people for whom reading is a method of cultural engagement, interpersonal communication and self-reflection, saw themselves ghettoized to the peripheries of American cultural discourse. Consequently, cultural and political divisiveness has now reached a flashpoint.

The irony of assigning The Lost Art of Reading to a group of desultory Millennials who have been brought up with cable television, cell phones, text messaging and the quick fire convenience of the Internet is that many of them don’t even bother to read the book, thereby proving Ulin’s various claims about the decline of reading and aliteracy’s impact on cultural discourse. When I ask questions about the book, my students respond with grumpy silence, eye rolling and pained facial expressions one doesn’t often see outside of hospital emergency rooms. Like Ulin’s son Noah, many of my students are of the opinion that reading may be fine for me, but it is an activity that they do not and probably never will enjoy. Reading, for them, is a chore—a broom sweeping away their leisure time rather than a key to enlightenment. With Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, video games, movies, television and other forms of entertainment so temptingly at their disposal, reading a book ranks as low on their list of past times as knitting socks.

To enhance the discussions of the books I teach in Culture, Diversity and Expression, I often show students a film or documentary that mirrors arguments made in the book. With The Lost Art of Reading I show two episodes from the original Twilight Zone series, both of them starring the incomparable Burgess Meredith. True fans of the show know that “Time Enough at Last” and “The Obsolete Man” are among the most admired episodes of the series, and it is only by sheer coincidence that Mr. Meredith stars in both. As Henry Bemis, the meek bibliophilic bank teller in “Time Enough at Last”, and Romney Wordsworth, the stalwart librarian condemned to death in a futuristic totalitarian society in “The Obsolete Man”, Meredith stands alone in a showdown between intellectualism and the rampant anti-intellectualism that has inundated our culture. The episodes remain as relevant, absorbing, and entertaining today as when they first aired, respectively, in 1959 and 1961.

Henry Bemis, bespectacled, socially awkward, and consumed with the desire to read as much as he can, is the anti-intellectual’s prototypical bookworm. Henry’s hunger for the written word borders on manic. No scrap of writing, from a political campaign button to the label on a ketchup bottle, is too inconsequential for him to read. His occupation as a bank teller in an unnamed city circa 1960 leaves him precious little time for reading, and his shrew of a wife, Helen (Jacqueline deWit), thwarts his efforts to read at home every chance she gets. A hard-bitten beanstalk of a woman with a face like a flour sack and a personality as abrasive as steel wool, she is the most caustic voice of anti-intellectualism in “Time Enough at Last”, lashing out at Henry for reading the newspaper alone in the living room rather than conversing with her. When Henry tries to smuggle a thin paperback of modern poetry into his pocket on their way to visit friends, she urges him to read some verse aloud to her. Delighted, Henry opens the book only to discover that every line of every page has been crossed out, the entire book defaced by Helen. When he protests, she accuses him of reading “nonsensical doggerel”[1], declares reading a waste of time, snatches the book from his hands and rips out the pages, leaving Henry cowering at her feet to retrieve the pages.

This action, more than exemplifying a collectivist animus toward reading and, by extension, all academic and scholarly pursuits, claims that reading can sabotage marriage, the institution social conservatives vociferously cite as the origin of a stable family and the foundation of a thriving, morally stainless society. Yet the violence Helen commits against Henry’s book—behavior far more injurious to him than the nuclear holocaust that destroys humanity at the conclusion of the episode’s first act—does more damage to their marriage than Henry’s reading ever could. As a symbol of Henry’s domestic world, the place where he should receive the most love and support, Helen’s hostility toward Henry’s hyperbolic engagement with books unmasks the culture’s unqualified disgust at books, reading, and readers. When Henry, unable to comprehend Helen’s actions, asks her why she destroyed the book, she coolly responds by saying he should thank her. In her estimation and that of the other characters in the episode, the only way for Henry to prove his worth is to cease all engagement with reading and become as mindless, unfeeling and, ultimately, as powerless as them.

Conformity is a theme consistent with almost every episode of The Twilight Zone. Often protagonists in The Twilight Zone endure harsh punishments for their refusal to conform to the post-World War Two patriarchal, capitalist system which imposes rigid codes on various forms and methods of self-expression. Henry, by choosing the company of the written word over healthy social bonds with others, has chosen not only to segregate himself from society but to rebel against the forces of anti-intellectualism which have claimed everyone around him. In a thinking person’s twist on the generic zombie horror story, “Time Enough at Last” casts Henry as the lone sentient human outrunning mindless individuals who have lost their humanity and seek to annihilate him, for as Ulin points out, reading is an act that places each person in touch with his or her own inner narrative; losing himself in reading signifies Henry’s quest for self-actualization within a social system which supports rather than invalidates his endeavors. Indeed, reading is the act that saves Henry from death. While reading The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving during his lunch break alone in the bank’s underground vault, a nuclear holocaust obliterates the world above. When Henry climbs out of the vault and ascends into the remnants of the apocalyptic event, he finds himself the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust and the inheritor of the vast wasteland of society. Unable to cope, he discovers a gun and resigns himself to suicide only to discover the ruins of the public library. He gleefully stacks tall piles of books among the rubble, happy at last to have all the time he wants to read without being chastised or interrupted. But sadly, at the episode’s famous conclusion, Henry stumbles, breaks his glasses, and is doomed to blindness for the rest of his existence.

The tragic climax of “Time Enough at Last” proposes contradictory themes. On one hand the episode’s defense of reading is unqualified. In an environment populated by dead-headed lemmings, Henry’s insatiable appetite for the written word keeps him intellectually sharp, witty, and articulate. The other characters in the episode are gruff, uncivil, and express anger which seems to have no rational basis (not unlike members of the Tea Party). The rage exhibited by Henry’s wife, his bank manager and even the customer he assists at the start of the episode can be linked to their disinclination to read and their objection to Henry’s distracted interest in reading. As Ulin points out, “[r]eading is a form of self-identification that works, paradoxically, by encouraging us to identify with others”, and since the people around Henry don’t read they are emotionally bankrupt[2]. Even after coming to terms with living out his days alone in the post-apocalyptic shambles of the world, Henry maintains an upbeat attitude, if only for a time. It is not the destruction of civilization that spirals Henry into hysteria, it is the frightening thought of enduring a lonely existence amid the rubble of what was once society without any meaningful purpose, to which he laments, “If there was only something to do, do, do!”[3] Through extensive reading, Henry learned to cultivate his inner life, master self-expression through language, and attune himself to the vicissitudes of the human condition. When we read we are not merely absorbing information; we are tracing the mental processes of authors, their subjects and the experiences they commit to the printed page. No one reads in a vacuum. Yet the film’s ironic twist, in which Henry breaks his glasses and is rendered blind, signifies anti-intellectualism’s final triumph. Total annihilation of life on Earth, given the hyperbolic construction of the episode’s opposing ideologies, does not satisfy the goal of anti-intellectuals. The termination of the individual’s access to and acquisition of knowledge through language is its ultimate objective, a message foreshadowed when Henry’s wife vandalizes his book of modern poetry and leaves him craven on hands and knees to recover the crossed out pages.

Educators encounter some degree of this same resentment from students almost every day. Their disinclination to read may not take the form of Helen Bemis’ outrageous and immature display, yet the lengths to which students will go to avoid reading and writing astonishes me and other professors. Though a small percentage of students admit to being pleasure readers, they universally detest critical reading and inquiry. This reflects in their writing assignments, which heap summarized information onto the page without argumentation or critical response. After spending their primary and secondary education producing answers for rewards, requiring them to critically engage with a text, as in Ulin’s son Noah’s case, makes them revile all associations with reading. In lieu of destroying books they avoid them altogether which, in a way, does more to advance the aims of anti-intellectualism than rending pages from books or setting them aflame. Vandalizing books at least acknowledges their existence and their transformative power. But when students won’t even acknowledge books, the battle for their intellect is over before it has even begun.

Cultural hostility toward literacy, reading, and intellectualism rest at the core of The Twilight Zone’s companion to “Time Enough at Last”. Also starring Burgess Meredith, “The Obsolete Man” thematically picks up where the former episode left off. In his narration at the beginning of the episode, Rod Serling states, “This is not a new world: It is simply an extension of what began in the old one”.[4] He further states that this society has “a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom”.[5] The forces of anti-intellectualism operating in “The Obsolete Man”, rather than unleashing apocalypse on the world as they did in “Time Enough at Last”, have opted not to destroy the world but to destroy intellectuals and all intellectual pursuits. Set somewhere in a dystopian future where reading and religion have been outlawed by a totalitarian regime, Serling, who scripted the episode, distills the seminal works of George Orwell (1984), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) into one of the most dramatic and compelling episodes of the entire series. “The Obsolete Man” lacks the moments of subtle humor that stipple the first half of “Time Enough at Last” and thrusts viewers into a war of words rather than hydrogen bombs. Meredith, as valiant librarian Romney Wordsworth, once again finds himself the lone defender of reading in a society whose main objective is to winnow the human race down to a small group of mindless, reactionary automatons who “frame every situation in terms of right and wrong [and] never . . . wrestle with complexity”.[6] Those humans deemed obsolete by the governing regime are put to death; sadly, Romney is among that group.

Yet unlike his avatar in “Time Enough at Last”, Romney possesses the courage and sagacity to stand up to the sinister forces of anti-intellectualism, chiefly embodied by a wrathful demagogue known as the Chancellor (Fritz Weaver). Spewing Nietzschean edicts from atop a perilously high podium in a Spartan courtroom, the bombastic Chancellor obliterates Romney’s defense of his usefulness to society and his worth as a human being predicated on his occupation as a librarian, a lowly and obsolete profession in view of society’s ban against books. Yet Romney counters the Chancellor’s claims by trumpeting his inherent human value and the virtues and necessity of reading, writing, and religion. Back and forth the Chancellor and Romney contentiously debate the issue—the Chancellor advocating wholesale extermination of human intellect, Romney fighting not only for intellectualism but his very life—yet in the end the Chancellor, in a soliloquy both eloquent in its rhetoric and nightmarish in its message, brings the debate to a close with grim finality:
                   You're a dealer in books and two cent fines and pamphlets
                   in closed stacks in the musty finds of a language factory that spews
                   meaningless words on an assembly line. WORDS, Mr.WORDSworth.
                   That have no substance, no dimension, like air, like the wind.
                   Like a vacuum, that you make believe have an existence . . .
                   Delusions, Mr.Wordsworth, DELUSIONS!! That you inject into your
                   veins with printer's ink, the narcotics you call literature:
                   The Bible, poetry, essays, all kinds, all of it are opiate to make
                   you think you have a strength, when you have no strength at all!!!
                   You are nothing, but spindly limbs and a dream, and The State
                   has no use for your kind![7]
The Chancellor himself is a walking contradiction, for no one as rabidly opposed to reading could utter such an impassioned, declamatory speech. Like Captain Beatty in Fahrenheit 451, his shrewdness and articulacy inform Romney and the audience that the Chancellor is not the true believer he would have us and the State believe, and that anti-intellectualism, at root, sees reading as a barrier to totalitarian control. More complex in its examination of reading and its enemies than “Time Enough at Last”, “The Obsolete Man” calls into question the very definition of humanness and demonstrates how reading “is an act of resistance . . . a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than us to disengage”.[8] Romney’s awareness of this fact inspires his scheme to expose the failures of both anti-intellectualism and totalitarianism but, unfortunately, it cannot save his life. Romney surmises that the Chancellor does indeed possess humanity and a soul, which he proves after locking the Chancellor in his small apartment with him where a bomb is set to detonate, the whole gruesome scenario televising to the entire nation. Moments before the bomb detonates, the Chancellor, once steely, confident, and implacable, breaks down in tears as his own mortality surfaces and begs Romney to release him. He does, and as the Chancellor scurries down the stairs Romney’s apartment explodes. However, when the Chancellor returns to his post in the courtroom, his underlings, having witnessed his cowardice, depose him and resolve to exterminate him for exposing flaws not only in himself but in the governing regime’s grand design, proving that though they may try, the forces of anti-intellectualism will never eradicate the quality of humanness in us all. But their efforts succeed in part because the Chancellor’s subaltern, representing a younger generation that, perhaps, has known no other system than the one they live in, carry out the Chancellor’s execution in a manner both swift and barbaric, one which leaves no room for error or gives the accused an opportunity to defend himself. As the Chancellor pleads for his life, his subaltern, a gang of austere men and women dressed in plain utilitarian clothing, surround him and drown out his pleas for mercy by making a loud buzzing sound: the white noise of a society that has successfully eradicated all linguistic and literary endeavors. A parallel between this murderous league—killers of their fellow human beings and the thoughts they express—and Millennials, who came of age during a time of waning readership and technological proliferation, is quite evident.

As social and political commentary, “Time Enough at Last” and “The Obsolete Man” remain prescient in foretelling a future where reading becomes a target for scorn and indignation. It is no coincidence that the individuals in our society who harbor the most antipathy toward education, intellectuals, and the creative class revile racial and ethnic diversity, multiculturalism and artistic expression. Ulin aptly notes that the real world consequences of aliteracy have already begun to take effect, particularly among Millennials, and quotes psychiatrist Edward Hallowell who claims “[Millennials are] a generation of people who . . . are so busy processing information from all directions they are losing the tendency to think and feel . . . [They] are sacrificing depth and feeling and becoming cut off and disconnected from other people”.[9] Colleges and universities across the country are scrambling to combat anti-intellectualism by altering curriculum and writing requirements to promote reading and inspire intellectual curiosity, but whether these modifications are counteracting aliteracy’s impact or merely staving off the demise of reading in Western culture remains to be seen.
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[1] The Twilight Zone. “Time Enough at Last”. Episode no. 8 first broadcast 20 Nov. 1959 by CBS. Directed by John Brahm and written by Rod Serling.

[2] Ulin, David L. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2010), 102.

[3] The Twilight Zone. “Time Enough at Last”. Episode no. 8 first broadcast 20 Nov. 1959 by CBS. Directed by John Brahm and written by Rod Serling.

[4] Serling, Rod. “The Obsolete Man”. The Twilight Zone (June 1961). CBS Studios. Free Republic. 29 Oct. 2013. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/2289136/posts

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ulin, David L. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2010), 94.

[7] Serling, Rod. “The Obsolete Man”. The Twilight Zone (June 1961). CBS Studios. Free Republic. 29 Oct. 2013. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/2289136/posts

[8] Ulin, David L. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2010), 150.

[9] Ibid p. 81




Jarrett Neal earned a BA in English from Northwestern University and an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Q Review, On the Rocks, Chelsea Station, Copperfield Review and other publications. His essay "Guys and Dolls" is featured in the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthology For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough, edited by Keith Boykin. He lives in Oak Park, IL.