Imagination turns the faculties of perception toward an inner world at least as expansive as the one outside, and extends their range to objects more distant than they outwardly can reach. Because objects of imagination are untestable by external evidence, we perhaps fairly consider them less than real. “It’s all in your head,” we say of a delusion. Of course, we haven’t always taken indwellingness as proof of unreality or unimportance. But the value we ascribe to the things we fashion inwardly has been in decline.* [FOOTNOTE: *For a discussion of the role that science—or “parascience”—has played in the decline, see Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010).]
By “objects of imagination” I don’t mean abstractions or opinions but the conjured face in a dream, the music we summon in thought while seated in a quiet room, and particularly the invented world in which the action of a novel takes place. If this value were not in decline we would not pursue ever more opportunities to crowd our inward space with new technologies that fill consciousness while oddly starving it, and literary reading would still make the same claim on our free time as it once did. But as periodic reports from the National Endowment for the Arts have found, “literary reading in America is not only declining among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.” So concluded the 2002 edition of the NEA’s survey. By 2017, the trend, at least among adults, had gotten worse: “The share of those reading novels or short stories is now lower than in any prior survey period.”
Why is this happening?
Recently, I ate lunch with Robert Darnton, historian of the French Enlightenment, trustee of the New York Public Library, and emeritus director of the Harvard University Library. At eighty, he has heard doomy predictions about the future of reading, especially reading printed books, for decades. Far from lamenting the prospects of the printed book in an ever-more-digital future, Darnton told me he believes the book is here to stay. I was not so bullish. Twenty years ago, riding the R train to work in Manhattan, I once looked up from the book I was reading and counted at least eight languages on the covers of the books of the other commuters. Today nearly all those people, including me, are looking at their phones.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t persuade Darnton to mope with me about the fate of paper books. And some of the people on the train, he pointed out, are surely reading e-books; some are listening to audiobooks. He ate his salad, smiling. He is a hopeful man, a both-and thinker, and sees no reason the new technologies should displace the old ones if we choose to keep them.
What we did agree on lamenting, however, was the lack of a certain charged something in contemporary engagement with literature. In university seminars, criticism, and conversation, I rarely hear people describe an encounter with a book that made them feel, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” Darnton and I seemed to think we were talking about the same phenomenon, although the word for it eluded me. Then he told me the French would say of a merely good-enough book, which failed to shake your innermost self, that it lacked souffle—that is, breath.
If we are lucky in life we find a few writers who speak to us this way, even from beyond the grave, even through translation, whose breath moves in us and makes us feel we had not quite been living before. An Icelandic novelist, beloved for decades around the world but still largely unknown in America, has done this for me. His name was Halldór Laxness.
Laxness possessed an uncanny ability to weave his characters’ transcendent intuitions into their physical surroundings. Inner and outer life for him feel composed of the same fabric, as when he describes a child’s soul “rising out of his body like frothing milk brimming over the edge of a basin.”
Here is Laxness at the beginning of World Light (1937–1940), a bildungsroman about a boy, Ólafur, who would become a famous poet in nineteenth-century Iceland:
He was a foster child, and therefore the life in his heart was a separate life, a different blood, without relationship to the others. He was not part of anything, he was on the outside, and there was often an emptiness around him. And long ago he had begun to yearn for some indefinable solace. This narrow bay with its blue shells and the waves gently rippling in over the sand, with the cliffs on one side and a green headland on the other—this was his friend. It was called Ljósavík.
The boy will go on to name himself, pretentiously but affectingly, after the bay, as if he had married it.
Laxness is a writer of deep longings—and sudden jokes. (“[Ólafur] hated people, and wrote about them.”) Susan Sontag called his Under the Glacier (1968) one of the funniest books ever written. Perhaps because he almost always sets his novels in Iceland, amid a peculiar culture in a singular environment, and because he is so confident in his depiction of the physical particulars of the place, the novels also possess an equal and opposite confidence in their ability to speak to a quality rarely held up these days as a literary value: universality.
To read Laxness is to encounter someone who has just this moment been knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus and feels he has no choice but to tell you what has happened to him. Ólafur feels “the deity reveal itself in Nature in an inexpressible music.” The physical hardships and humiliations the characters endure go right to the core of their being. On the farm in World Light where the boy is put to work to earn his keep, there is no paper “and even when there was, no one was allowed to waste it. He would furtively scratch letters with a stick on bare patches of earth or in the snow, but he was forbidden to do that and was told he was writing himself to the devil. So he had to write on his soul.”
How to express the loneliness of rereading a book like this, briefly convinced that I, too, had a soul—since what else in me was this book speaking to?—and then to walk to the subway and ride into Midtown among the throng of commuters, staring like everyone else at my little screen, wolfing down impeachment news?
For lunch I sometimes take friends to the Scandinavia House, on Park Avenue at 38th Street, a six-story cultural center enveloped in zinc and spruce. The bright café at street level is dominated by a tree in the middle of the floor, painted white and branching out over the diners like a friendly ghost. I started going there for the meatballs and because it’s just a five-minute walk from the office. Recently, however, I discovered that the building houses on the fourth floor an institution called the Halldór Laxness Library. I asked at the front desk if I could go see it.
“Why?” I was asked. Because, I said, I love the novels of Halldór Laxness. No, I could not, I was told. It was for members only.
Nevertheless, after a few phone calls and a bit more explanation, I was welcomed and given a friendly tour of the building, which houses all things Nordic, even a Scandinavian-style day care. The object of my inquiry was, it turned out, a glassy chamber with a big table and a collection of art books, a conference room more than a library—nothing about Laxness to be seen, alas, not even his picture. Later, a longtime employee explained that twenty years before, when the building was under construction, the Icelanders who got together to make a donation in support of it did not quite have the resources of the Volvo Group, for which a reception hall there is named, and asked if they could just name a room, call it a library, in honor of their national writer.
I have been to Laxness’s house outside Reykjavík. It’s now a state museum. The clock in the foyer is the one that belonged to his grandparents and shows up in his novel The Fish Can Sing (1957), where its tocking seems to the young protagonist to be a voice saying “e-TER-nit-Y.” In season, the state keeps his pool filled, and his Rolls-Royce, bought with money from his Nobel Prize, sits in the driveway. The clock, the pool, the Rolls, his piano, his rack of neckties, and the valley the house overlooks are all very charming, but whatever I was looking for isn’t there.
It’s no fault of the library or the museum that by honoring a writer, they attract people for whom his work is such an intense experience of imagination that they seek evidence that the experience was more than imaginary. Why should that clock need to exist anywhere but in the book and in my mind? Why do I go to these places, hoping somehow to smell a man who wrote in a language I don’t know and who died, in 1998, before I had ever heard his name? Because he comes to me in my dreams. And the world he has built in my mind feels saturated with life-giving breath. With reality.
The regret has been around a long time that previous generations were better at reading, that literature mattered more to them, that works of imagination have lost their prestige. Maybe no present can compete with the imagined past in this way. But if we really are experiencing a slow-motion collapse in the value we place on literary reading, perhaps the crisis has come about because we no longer consider our imagination a worthwhile place to live. Or we don’t feel there is any air to breathe there, and refuse for whatever reason to entertain the possibility that the beautiful worlds that live only in our minds—albeit merely imaginary and merely our own—are, nevertheless, real.