Monday, December 31, 2007

Why Should We Read?

I just finished reading a most interesting article in the New Yorker. Caleb Crain's "Twilight of the Books" decries the decline in reading (supported by substantial data) and examines some of the differences between literate and illiterate learning. I recommend reading the entire article, but here are few excerpts upon which I'd like to comment.

In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There's no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument...Since there's no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently adjusted. As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past's inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth."

I can think of entire groups of people who are probably cursing Gutenberg. :-)

While I'm not ready to indict oral culture (and I think that "cliché" and "stereotype" take on slightly different meanings in an illiterate context, given that those terms are from the language of literacy), I do believe that a decline in reading is contributing much to the ignorance and apathy so prevalent in the world. Reading is force-fed in the schools, but often what is missing is the other component: writing. Writing forces critical thinking. Multiple choice options may test basic comprehension of facts, but they do not test the ability of the student to engage with the material in a critical way. The ball is red. The ball belongs to Sam. The child has learned two bits of data but has not been given any kind of encouragement to think creatively (one of the biggest benefits to be had in reading books!) If reading, from an early age, is merely the conveyance of information, where is the motivation to read? Why not watch television, which can also convey information? Television is entertaining, but the images come so quickly, there is little time to think beyond them (although some will analyze these images afterward). There is no "pause" button necessary in reading. And chapters are not determined by advertising money.

In citing data regarding the increased participation of readers in cultural activities and voting, Crain offers:

"Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, "all he can do is give us desires." Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose."

Food for thought, yes?


Rebecca said...

I have to agree with you -- when my son was in high school there was an enforced reading period (for the entire school - at a specific time). But the writing component was missing. They claimed a "literature based" curricula, though the interpretation of that seemed to be "read a book" then "answer questions." In high school, I had to read books, then write critiques, etc. Always, there was writing. Even at elementary level. I recall Scholastic Reading cards (color coded) that we did. First, read the card then answer some questions. Before moving on, however, a short report on the topic was required. Every class from elementary through high school seemed to require a written assignment (or "report") - even geometry and French (in French, no less).

I ramble -- obviously I love talking which translates to writing in this information age.

Rebecca said...

Literacy is a huge problem. And we need to stop thinking "literacy" means being able to read sentences aloud. That is a limited definition. Understanding can only be had by interacting with that material in a meaningful way.

I don't think you were rambling. :-)

Matthew Cornell said...

I guess I'm naive - I didn't realize how many folks don't read. I can't imaging living without reading. Though to be honest, I had an intellectual re-awakening a few years ago that spurred a personal renaissance in non-fiction. Thanks for the pointer!