A month ago, I asked you why the study of literature should be mandatory in college. You gave me lots of interesting responses (both here and on my OpenSalon blog). Not only did you help me start formulating the research question I was looking for, but you also got me thinking about why I don’t read more.
Last summer I published a post in which I mourned the decline of reading, not just among my students and the population in general, but in my own life. The upshot of the post is that I’m too vulnerable to easy distractions. At the end of a long day, if I have the choice to pick up a book or waste hours on Facebook, I fall prey to the latter without even making a conscious decision.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked my IB students whether the two novels we’ve read so far have any sort of social or political purpose. The discussion was interesting to begin with, but it took a turn into the even more profound when someone asked whether literature, in and of itself, has a social or political purpose.
There was a pause after this question. Then I asked, “Why do we read? What are books for? If the novel goes the way of live theater – a medium appealing to only a small, relatively rarefied segment of the population – what, if anything, will be lost? What can a novel do for us that other art forms can’t?”
I have my own pet answer to this question. I believe that reading literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself. As we hashed the question around a bit, I proposed this answer to my students, and most of them seemed to find it convincing.
Marcel, however, had another bone he wanted to pick about this. “People don’t read, because it takes time,” he said. “You have to invest more time and work harder to receive a greater, delayed reward. This is why people don’t read. They are intellectually lazy.”
This assertion struck me hard, because, in my case at least, he’s right. I know that an evening spent reading a book, whether it’s Proust or a P. D. James novel, will bring greater rewards than a night reading status updates and watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. If I make the effort, I will be happier, I will feel calmer, I will sleep better, and I will probably even learn something. But turning on the TV or the computer fills the echoey corners of my brain without my having to invest anything. Most nights, this is more appealing than actually doing something.
Today, a friend sent me Mark Slouka’s essay “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” from last September’s Harper’s. Here is another indicator of my laziness: a colleague sent me this article sometime last fall, I printed it up and carried it around with me for almost two months, and then I chucked it out. When Wanda deposited it in my inbox today, I had stacks of papers to mark, so of course it was the perfect time to read it, and I did. In her message, Wanda helpfully pulled the most salient quote out for me:
Happily ignoring the fact that the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other, our high schools and colleges labor mightily to provide students with mirrors of their own experience, lest they be made uncomfortable, effectively undercutting diversity in the name of diversity.
This assertion – that “the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other” – is at the root of my love of literature and of my belief in teaching literature. It’s also why, at the end of the day, I’m reluctant to sit down with a book. I am constantly looking for literature that will make me feel cozy and reaffirmed, in which I will encounter things that are so familiar as to be transparent. If I can’t have that, I don’t want to read at all.
And I question whether my students need to read literature, because I want them to have that cozy experience too. I don’t want literature to be hard work for them. I want them to love the books I give them, love them easily and wholeheartedly, and when they don’t, I wonder why they should read them at all.
Both my students and I need to work harder. I have no excuse – I’ve been given all the training I need to approach reading with my sleeves rolled up, and I just don’t bother. My students need that training, and I need to give it to them. If I sincerely believe that reading helps us to understand what it’s like to be someone else, then I need to hand my students the tools to help them read – to help them read well, widely, attentively, and voraciously.
Because if there’s one thing that will rescue us, it’s our ability to understand one another, and I believe literature can help us find that.
Image by Jim Larranaga