How Literature Will Save the World: Reprise

Why should we keep reading?  Why should my students learn to love reading?  I began asking myself this question in 2010, and I keep asking it, of myself and others.  Below, some of my initial thoughts on the matter.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about reading.

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”.  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


23 thoughts on “How Literature Will Save the World: Reprise

  1. It can be a difficult thing to encourage – reading for pleasure, I mean: there is a fine line between ‘encouraging’ and ‘controlling’. How do you deal with that ‘tension’?


  2. “…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.” This made me giggle.
    And I am reading this wonderful post because I have a stack of exams to correct.


  3. This really struck me. As a History teacher, I am often confronted with the question, “Why are we studying about the past.” Like you, I find history to be relevant and irrelevant at times but I too always come back to the idea that it connects us to the experiences, systems, practices, cultures that came before us and gives context to the world around us and also to who I am personally. Teaching in the humanities often feels like taping into food for the soul and brings empathy front and center. Thank you for this post.


  4. “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.”

    This comment stopped me in my tracks. I agree that reading (novels) is ONE way to know what it’s like to be someone other than myself. It’s a way that has been good to me, although I would add that reading biographies and history can be equally as good. And I might add, some novels are pretty manipulative and work mainly on the level of suspense and thrills.

    But we might get farther in getting students to want to read novels, biographies, and history, if we also honored other ways of understanding what it’s like to be someone else. A big, big one that all students bring to the classroom with them is direct personal contact with other people. Granted, these people tend not to be too different than themselves, as compared to Lord Jim or the characters in The Color Purple. But a teen who learns to really listen to his great-grandfather, or to the Assistant Manager from another country at the restaurant where he works weekends, is getting significant insight into the mind and life of another.

    And I think some students, especially older ones, in their resistance to reading novels that aim to reveal the lives of others, are simply saying that reading is not how they accomplish the goal of learning about (fictional) others. Some are even saying that they feel no need to get inside another person’s (fictional) head. They have other interests, and being asked to stand in the shoes of a fictional person feels pointless to them. Many, many engineers and other techie types of my acquaintance definitly have this attitude. We may not like it, but I think we have to accept it.


    1. EB: 2 points:
      1. In my view, “literature” includes novels, biography, history, and any other writing that uses carefully crafted language to help us understand the unfamiliar. When I discuss this topic w/ students, we often agree that 1st-person narrative (fictional or non-fictional) is the optimal medium through which literature can help us know what it is like to live inside someone else’s experience.
      2. The point you make about direct personal contact is a good one. One thing students and I often discuss, however, is that in order to truly understand things that others tell us about their lives, we have to be able to see things from their perspective. We talk about conflicts we have with others in which they tell us about their experience but we are unable to really see things from their p.o.v. We are not inside their heads in the same way we can be when we are reading a well crafted (fictional or non-fictional) story. This assumes, however, that we can really enter into the story we are reading, which is not possible for everyone.


  5. I love this post. I am not an educator, but this makes me wish I had a classroom to have such conversations. Reading not only shows us what it’s like to be someone else, but for me, it has altered – and improved – who I am.


  6. I think a lot of people see reading as something exclusive. Recently, the culture around reading has made more of a distinction between readers and non-readers rather than a discussion of the things we read.

    When talking about books to people who don’t read much it’s better to avoid phrases like “that book is so good. You HAVE to read it.” or “you don’t like it? But it’s a classic!” Those are meaningless phrases that exclude. By changing the way we talk about books and trying to explain why we love a certain book or certain author (what are those little things that make you laugh or nod in understanding or cry or change the way you think?), we can show people why reading worth their time.


    1. Natalie: I would take this one step further and say that in some circles, reading alienates you from your community. I have seen both young people and adults take a “who do you think you are?” attitude toward readers – as though spending time w/ books is pretentious. It is hard for even children who love reading to overcome this pressure.


  7. Thanks to my Kindle and Project Gutenberg I’ve read 65 books so far this year. Most were fascinating adventures in other times and places. I’ve worked hard this week, just wrapped up another large project, and now the Beagle and I are going to sit outside, me with coffee and my Kindle, and relax on a gorgeous day. There is nothing quite like reading a good book.


    1. Bruce: I aspire to finding this pleasure in books again. During the semester, reading anything I don’t have to often feels like a chore. (And there is no relaxing outside w/ a book in mid-October in Montreal…I envy you!)


  8. I have the desire to be an educator (yet no job to show for it)…I’m fascinated by your blog and your experiences in the classroom. And I’m motivated to log off WordPress and go pick up my book!


  9. I’m not entirely sure I agree with a few of your points.

    First of all, yes, reading takes more work than watching television or a movie. But Vygotsky’s work on zones of development indicates that as we learn we move between the familiar and unfamiliar. So not only is there nothing wrong with brain-fluff, that sort of mindless entertainment is actually helpful, so long as it is supplemented with fodder that is more challenging.

    Second, in addition to giving us a way of identifiying with others, literature can also be a way of getting an alternate perspective of ourselves. Donalyn Miller talks about books as windows vs. books as mirrors. Both are important.

    Finally, I would also disagree with Marcel. Yes, reading takes time and effort. But choosing not to spend one’s time and effort on reading does not necessarily mean that one is intellectually lazy. It means different priorities. Like right now I could be reading The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln but instead I’m commenting because I think you brought up some intriguing points and I wanted to respond to them. I am prioritizing communication over reading a novel, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing in the least.


  10. Off topic: I love your analysis and deep love for teaching. And that is why I am giving a link here that is a Q&A site for educators. It needs support from experts and who could I find better than you? Kindly take a passing look; if anything it would provide a central way of engaging educators round the world; the purpose with which you made this blog itself.

    And if the site seems alien to you, it is really a very popular network of Q&A sites. Ask any programmer and she/he would vouch for Stack Overflow. This particular ‘Educatiors’ site is new-born and the democratic site of area51 requires a certain amount of experts in a field before even starting a site – the ‘Commit’ phase of the site.

    Yes, you might ignore my message and say ‘spam!’ (totally fair; this is a very targeted spam) but I – for my selfish purpose – need a Q&A site on which not only can I ask my questions but also learn from others’ questions. If you are not sure about the premise Stack Exchange, you might look at their other sites (top left link) and decide for yourself. It would be very kind of you if you get engaged in it and spread the message further along. And thank you for reading this again!


  11. Encountering “the other.” I seem to recall (back in my college days) the word “Holy” having its origins in the root word for “other.” Gives one pause, no?


  12. I love your thoughts on this. Reading has the power to change you, but being a humanities teacher, I believe this is the same for art, music, film, etc. a greater, more substantive reward always requires more on our part, no matter the art form. I have lately been so mentally exhausted that I have been falling prey to brainless activities. Thanks to your reminder I hope to fix that, starting today.


  13. Your point about going beyond reading that’s comfortable to you is an important one in confronting people we think of as ‘others.’ And it’s never enough to read – that’s just the first step. It’s to think when reading, put yourself into that person’s mind… Most people skim for content, and write what they hope their teacher/professor will want to hear, without really taking the experience and knowledge of their reading deep into themselves. If they don’t do that I don’t see how their reading can meaningfully affect their interactions with others and their acknowledgement of other people’s humanity in their day-to-day lives. They need to open themselves to the books.


  14. I think reading is fun, and I think that I’m going to have to read that essay you mention as I’ve never seen it before. I think one of the reason many people don’t read for pleasure is that they have access to other media like TV and DVDs which satisfies their need for stories. I tend to be online more than I should, but I still read regularly. Mainly fiction, so I’m not sure that the two activities are mutually exclusive, each has a place…


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