Tolkien and the Post-Literate Society

The Lord of the Rings is one of the touchstone stories of my childhood. They are not the most influential books I read as a child (those would be the criminally under-appreciated Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander), but my imagination still spent countless hours growing up in Fangorn Forest and the Misty Mountains. In high school, I read The Silmarillion and the LoTR appendices. If I was writing something in my high-school-era diary that I wanted to make sure nobody else could read, I wrote it in Tengwar, the alphabet used by the Elves. I wished I could be an Elf. My Tolkien credentials are strong. Growing up before the Internet, I assumed I was the only person in the whole world who knew this much about Middle-Earth.

A close-up of an entry in my journal from May 2, 1990. It would take me a long time to decipher this today and I’m sure I would be mortified by what I read. If it wasn’t embarrassing, I wouldn’t have tried to hide it.

The glorious thing about the Internet era is that no matter how niche your interests, you can find a community of other people deeper into them than you are. That’s how I feel about John Halbrooks’s newsletter Personal Canon Formation. I found it shortly before he was about to start his Lord of the Rings Reading Challenge, and he gave me the nudge I needed to read these books again. Over the course of eight weeks, Halbrooks taught me things I never knew about Tolkien and Middle-Earth: Connections between Tom Bombadil and the Green Knight; how Tolkien’s personal life may have influenced the wealth of male friendships depicted in the epic (a sharp contrast with his portrayal of women); the different ways Tolkien invokes “deep time” in his novels. Several times over the course of the Reading Challenge, Halbrooks showed how Tolkien would shift the tone of his writing in deliberate ways, something lost on me as a young reader. While I loved the books in my youth, I also judged them “old-fashioned.” I didn’t notice that Tolkien shifted between warm/funny/informal writing in sections mostly about hobbits and grand, heroic writing in sections about men and battles, nor did I know that deliberately invokes Old English storytelling traditions. (“Old-fashioned,” indeed.) Everybody will learn something new with Halbrooks’s The Lord of the Rings reading challenge.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that as much as I loved reading and re-reading these books in high school, until Halbrooks’s reading challenge, I had not read them since Peter Jackson’s movies came out. Since 2001, my imagination has returned to Middle-Earth via film and not the written word; I adore the movies and have seen them about ten times. Has even my bookish life become an example of the transition to a “post-literate society”?

Because it is both obvious yet seldom talked about, every modern bookworm thinks they create the idea of the “post-literate society” only to find it has been talked about for decades. First, the stories you hear of people like Socrates make you realize that “literacy” is not a prerequisite for “intelligence.” You then realize we confuse the two because for thousands of years, “writing” was the only technology you could use to transmit your thoughts to people who could not hear your voice. Thus, “reading” becomes the only way to link to the brains of all of those others across time and space. But technology has changed. Now, we all carry high-definition video cameras in our pockets that are connected to the internet; it’s easier to express our thoughts with our own voice and body language than it is to write them in words. Videos are as easy to share as text.

If you are a fluent reader now, you have probably long forgotten how difficult it was to acquire that skill. As Maryanne Wolf explains in Proust and the Squid, you are born with circuits in your brain ready to help you listen and speak; a child will pick up spoken language naturally. Becoming a fluent reader, on the other hand, involves taking big chunks of your brain that are intended for other purposes and re-wiring them. It does not happen naturally. It takes years of focused instruction and practice, and there are many steps along the way where it can go wrong. For generations, we have spent the time and effort striving for universal literacy because it is so difficult to thrive in our world without education, and for generations it was nearly impossible to become educated without being literate. However, perhaps it has become possible, in this era of YouTube and podcasts, to become an educated person without spending much time reading at all. This is post-literate society.1

My two sons, who are now in high school, may be early members of the post-literate generation. Neither have read a book for fun in years. They get their entertainment from sports, friends, video games, and (of course) TikTok. If something confuses them in math class, they find it easier to learn from YouTube tutorials than from their textbooks. It’s not the life I lived in high school, but it seems to be working for them.

Yet when I look back on my life, what makes my heart warmest is thinking about the years I spent reading bedtime stories to my sons. We spent all that time together learning about the dietary habits of hungry caterpillars and wondering what was in Esmé Squalor’s sugar bowl precisely because: 1) Everyone loves stories, even tiny humans; 2) the sounds and rhythms of spoken language are entrancing; 3) fluent reading is a difficult skill that takes years to acquire. If reading was easy, my sons wouldn’t have needed me to spend that time with them. I may have failed to pass along the love of reading, but if I had this life to live over again, I would still commit to and cherish every second of bedtime stories. I hope my sons get to experience this, too, but I worry for them. When they become fathers, since they live in a world that values the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events the same as the books and Peter Jackson as much as Tolkien, how much time will they spend reading to their children?

Me and my kids. We’re all much older now.

Thanks again to John Halbrooks’s reading challenge for encouraging me to look past the movies and reconnect with some of the books I loved as a child, even if my thoughts now are more wistful than purely happy. Tolkien describes Elves in The Lord of the Rings as eternal but fading. They recognize that their time in Middle-Earth is over, so they sail off into the West. Life and history in Middle-Earth continues, just passed now to the hands of Men. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the decline and fading of readers in the post-literate society?

  1. Sam Kahn’s essay describes post-literate society much better than I can. Highly recommend.