In Touchstone Magazine, Arthur W. Hunt meditates on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1776 painting “A Young Girl Reading” (pictured below). Hunt, a professor of Communications, compares the girl in the painting to the students in his classes. Of the girl in the painting, he writes:
If Fragonard’s painting apprehends the ideal as imagined by French-speaking families, then one must ask, Who is this girl? I would suggest that she is a portrait of civility, intelligence, and virtue. In her, a suitor would find refinement and the embodiment of what was best about French culture, such as it was prior to the American Revolution. Her depiction is not, however, isolated to the tastes of Paris. She would be the ideal in Philadelphia as well. No doubt there existed a hundred like her within a mile of Franklin’s print shop.
His female students, in contrast, are girls with gadgets. Obsessed with their smartphones, they don’t read anymore, at least not deeply, Against Fragonard’s painting, Hunt offers us images of women from iPod commercials: “The iPod girls groove to music, for which the device was originally designed. They crank their arms and shake their booties. Today these devices serve multiple purposes—taking pictures, watching movies, checking email, and playing video games. The iPhone and iPad also serve many of these same functions. You can even use them to read books. But whether girls actually use these gadgets to read books is another question.”
From all of this, Hunt foresees the end of civility, which he illustrates by telling us that he recently saw a girl belch on campus while her friends laughed. The young girl reading is gone, and with her “all that she signifies—sophistication, depth, urbanity, intelligence, refinement.”
First, let me say: I share some of his concerns about the addictive power of smartphones, and about the rhythm of modern life, and the possible effects of these things on our collective attention span.
That said, Hunt’s article shows all of the trademarks of the Myth of Moral Decline: hyperbole, a blindness to goodness in modernity, and a fatal case of confirmation bias. By taking Fragonard’s girl reading as an emblem for an entire era, he’s overlooking all of the other images that time period might provide: of shopkeepers, farm girls, slaves—many of whom would rarely have had the time to lose themselves for an afternoon in a book, and who probably could not have regularly managed the three hours per day (which seems like a lot to me!) the average contemporary college student spends reading, according to a survey that Hunt cites. And taking the dancing girl from the iPod commercial as an emblem of modern life… Well. Don’t get me started.
Rather than writing a rebuttal to his post, though, I want to point you all to the gorgeous photographs from the series “Reading Women” by Carrie Schneider, featured this week in Slate. Schneider, like Hunt (and like me!), is anxious about our changing reading habits: “We are entering the era of the end of the printed page!” she says. And: “I think there is something physical, visceral about reading a book that is unlike anything else. And again, there is something rare about the depth of concentration that can be experienced while reading. Living in a culture obsessed with speed, ‘progress,’ consumption—these moments of pure immersion, belied by stillness, are rare, political, and powerful.”
So her photos are idealizations, like Fragonard’s painting, but they present a broader ideal. Schneider photographs diverse young women, reading texts from a diverse array of authors: Gwendolyn Brooks, Catherine Malabou, Edith Wharton, Angela Davis. And the images are undeniably, thrillingly modern. Whereas Hunt imagines Fragonard’s girl with a book providing stimulating conversation for her husband, it’s impossible to imagine Schneider’s women limiting their aspirations to that.
Maybe, looking at Schneider’s photographs, it’s easier to have a little more sympathy for modernity—to believe that the girl glued to her iPhone on the subway really could be reading a philosophical treatise, or that the girl laughing with her friends on campus might then retreat to her dorm room to get lost in Virginia Woolf.
(By the way, the same issue of Touchstone contains a more… um … strident attack on modernity, from our good friend Anthony Esolen, including the phrase “addled, sub-marital illuminati.” It’s pure-dee, unfiltered, high-octane Esolen. Read it at your own risk.)