Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why We Read

I’ve read several works lately that focus on why and how we read. The first year Ryan and I were married, I dragged him to a library book sale and he got sucked into the silent auction. We ended up coming up with a complete set of the Great Books of the Western World and the Gateways to the Great Books (meant to help you get started with short stories or shorter works by some of the authors in the Great Books set). Those were “his” books, while I bought bags full of “my” books. I’m a lucky girl.  Sadly, these great books have mostly sat unread on our shelves just looking pretty. I’ve read some of the novels in other forms – these are hard backs with tiny print – and some of the ancient Greek works. As these sets make up a good chunk of my TBR stacks, I started with the introduction to both sets.

The intro to the Great Books set is called The Great Conversation. I thought this was fitting, because while reading it I also read Reading for Pleasure in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs, which actually references the editor, Mortimer Adler, of the Great Books/The Great Conversation multiple times and basically argues with him. This made for an interesting reading experience! I really felt like I was having a conversation – I’d read some of Adler’s points and then read some of Jacob’s points and go back to Adler while agreeing with and arguing with both of them.

So, what were their points? Adler argues that everyone should read the Great Books. These are a foundation for all learning and understanding and after reading them you will be better equipped to read anything. He rants about the education system and how it’s not focused on reading whole works and we’re too distracted by TV to read anything anymore – and he’s writing in the early 60s! I hate to think what he’d be thinking now.

Jacobs, on the other hand, thinks people should read on a whim and for pleasure, not because someone told them that this or that book is one they should read. He dislikes lists like the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die and anything that tries to say there are certain books you should read. He also doesn’t really think you can teach someone to love reading, which he admits is an odd stance for an English literature professor.

For me, there are pieces of both philosophies that I agree with. I agree with Jacobs in that I think by pushing students to believe that only reading certain works really counts and focusing on works that usually aren’t the best classics out there, we make reading feel like a chore. It’s something to do so you can be smart or well read or because you’re supposed to, not because it’s simply fun.

However, like Adler, I do think we should teach everyone to appreciate the classics. That doesn’t mean everyone will end up a life-long classics reader, but they should be exposed to Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks and many others. I disagree with him that everyone should read everything in the Great Books –even I’m not looking forward to trying several authors, such as Euclid and some of the other math and science focused authors. I think if we tried to force everyone to read those in school we’d have even more people who never read again.

I do think there are ways to use the classics to show students you can read for pleasure. I think teachers should choose books that have interesting stories instead of just works that are the ones that tend to get taught. For example, Hamlet gets taught a lot in high school, but it’s not the Shakespeare play that I think would appeal most to high school students. Why not try Othello instead? Teenagers are living with revenge and manipulation and love triangles every day – they can relate. Relating to Hamlet whining about his dead father and his uncle shacking up with his mom and possibly having killed his father? Not so much. Don’t get me wrong – I love Hamlet. However, when I read it the first time in high school even I – who enjoyed classics even then – was irritated by Hamlet and didn’t enjoy it.

I enjoyed this passage of Adler’s: “The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long mean either that democracy must fall prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandist or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves.”

How many problems would the world be able to solve if people read the classics to strengthen their minds, improve their logic and really learn how to think? Then again, how many people who have read the classics fall on both sides of the political aisle? And I can’t help but think about my husband, who doesn’t read that often (despite buying the Great Books set), but is the smarter person I know. Although, he did read Homer and Virgil when he was in junior high so he did still have that foundation, so Adler and Jacobs could both use him to argue their points, I think.

While Jacobs argues that reading should first and foremost be for pleasure, at the same time, he turns right around and makes some of the same arguments Adler does. He talks of the importance of the liberal arts education and teaching students how to think so that they can continue to learn throughout life. He complains that schools are set up with the assumption that students will not continue to learn once they graduate. He also talks about reading slower and more reflectively rather than rushing forward to read the next book on the list, which is actually something I think Adler would agree with.

Adler mentions that he thinks schools focus too much on socialization and the inefficiencies in the system keep kids in school longer than they should. He believes we could easily trim 2-4 years off the current system by removing busy work and not teaching to the lowest denominator, allowing students to start and finish college much earlier. I remember being so bored through most of my schooling, and definitely agree that it could have been condensed. I think this would encourage more people to go to college too, because you could take longer to finish college if you’re working and paying your own way and still be very young when you finish, or you could move through college and advanced degrees and become a doctor or Ph.D while still in your early 20s.

I seem to fall somewhere in the middle of Jacobs and Adler – I enjoy using lists such as the Great Books to guide my reading and discover new works, but they don’t rule my reading. Much of my reading is done on a whim and is purely for entertainment. I think you need a bit of both in life.

I think there’s enough in these works for several blog posts, and I may end up continuing to write about these books, but for now I’ll close with this quote Jacobs used from a graduation speech David Foster Wallace gave: “Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

How/why do you read? Do you follow lists, read on a whim, or both?

1 comment:

  1. Really great post. I'm not a teacher or anything like that :-) -- but I find myself passionate about the education of America. I have lists that I use to guide my reading, but I do very much read by whim.

    You say: "I agree with Jacobs in that I think by pushing students to believe that only reading certain works really counts and focusing on works that usually aren’t the best classics out there, we make reading feel like a chore. It’s something to do so you can be smart or well read or because you’re supposed to, not because it’s simply fun."

    This is a great point. I think that, like you say, it'd be very beneficial to gear the classics toward the age group of the classroom, and then be enthusiastic and a little more balanced on the right brain side. I think a lot of the problem in the classroom is that most teachers teach to the left brain students. I just had a math professor who literally taught to both left and right brain: he'd lecture first to the left brain half of the class, and then translate what he had said to the right brainers. That's the FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE I ever liked a math class.

    I think it's like that for literature, too. Be enthusiastic. Teach the big picture for the big picture thinkers (the right brainers.) Less memorization and more intuition -- is my suggestion. Balance is needed.