Why Read Literature?


Literature Image

While you are waiting with Dr. Ray Klump (see Ray’s faculty blog titled “Software Goes Vroom!”) for the sock-sorting app for your digital phone, you might consider turning to literature to find some guidance through our brave new world.  Reading literature can be a preparation for and a necessary antidote to our increasing immersion in a digitized world.

Or so argue all of the contributors to Standing on the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?, a collection of essays edited by Canadian Paul Socken. Some of the contributors are Sven Birkerts, J. Hillis Miller, and Alberto Manguel. I have tried to synthesis the essays, especially when the authors address the same sub-topics.

These explorations are very much support previous commentaries made by Nick Carr in The Shallows (an expansion of his provocative “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” article in the Atlantic), by Mark Bauerlein in  The Dumbest Generation, and by a host of books, like Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, which look at the effects of reading literature from a neuroscience perspective.

Our Contemporary Condition…and How to Thrive in It

Narcissism The digital world is about ME. The user of electronic devices sits at the focal point of multiple message-generating agents. The immediate gratification – the neural tingle that comes from turning on a device and seeing someone reaching out to me – is addictive. With our neural pathways reshaped by technology, we crave new stimulating jolts, jolts made more pleasurable if they are simultaneous. Reading literature helps us to put on the brakes, to reduce our addiction and address our self-preoccupation. One mental process that literature, especially the novel of the 20th century, encourages is the immersion into the lives of others. Multiple narrative experiments in revealing the consciousness of human beings – their ways of responding the world in all of its complexity – have enabled us to imaginatively inhabit the minds of others. While immersed in the novel we play a useful simulation game, following the deliberations of the characters, some like us and some very different from us. We become better mind readers for having seen many fictional minds at work. The literature world at its best is not about me but about them.

Related to Narcissism: Decline in Empathy. New discoveries in the neurosciences, although to be approached with necessary skepticism, seem to support the long-standing, take-my-word-for-it claim that reading literature deepens our empathy. For instance, the discovery of mirror-neurons indicates that reading about a fictional character’s actions produces the same kind of neurological response as if we had done the actions ourselves.

Shortened Attention Span. Many writers have made the case that electronic devices have made us more easily distracted; even the most disciplined of readers occasionally succumb to the urgency of the latest text or twitter or news feed. A few even go to extreme measures, like creating reading “caves,” to avoid the temptations. They fear that the enhanced e-reader (with wifi capabilities will pull the readers away from their sustained attention to an unfolding narrative. Our powers of concentration can be strengthened by reading a novel which demands full attention if it is to do its work. It must be acknowledged that most young people don’t have much trouble giving full attention to a two hour feature film, though it’s also true that fewer of them are seeing films in theatres, whether suburban multiplexes or downtown art houses. And the films that they prefer seem to be overly-stimulating action movies with frenetic camera movement and rapid cutting between images.

Also: Lack of Persistence. One sociological study has revealed that those children who own books, think of themselves as readers, and are willing to join a “book culture,” achieve three more years of education than those who don’t. The presence of books in the home correlates with higher success in school, even when factors in parental education, family income, ethnicity, etc. are taken into account.

Inability to Make Arguments. Because our reading practices on screens most frequently are jet-skiing over rather than deep diving under the surface, we see fewer models of sustained argumentation and thus are unable to thoroughly develop a case when necessary. The demands of this particular blog form work against a more extensive (and perhaps more persuasive) development of the topic of reading literature in a digital age (Mike, can’t you compress your entries?).  Literature, especially long form literature, has its own rhetoric of persuasion that can be unpacked and imitated. Following the argument of a novel enables us to more ably make sustained arguments. It’s worth resisting a return to a pre-literate world where argument was made not with words but with images and icons.

Loneliness (in a Crowd).  We seem to have embraced a guiding rule that says that “it’s only worth doing if it can be shared.” (A corollary: “It’s only worth visiting if it can be photographed and instantaneously posted.”) The proliferation of social networks and the creation of thousands of interest-group sites and forums are truly astounding. Why do we feel both well-connected (indeed much better connected than our parents) and lonely? Why do we feel both proud of and anxious about our memberships? A number of the writers in the collection make the important distinction between being lonely (negative) and being alone (positive). Reading literature, especially if we temporarily withdraw from our social world, provides practice at being alone. Some readers of literature learn to covet their alone-ness. It becomes necessary for them to establish this counter-life where reflection and contemplation is more possible and where one can be recharged for the return to the social world.

Lack of Self-awareness. As competence in reading literature grows, the reader discovers that a number of mental activities can occur simultaneously. As we read the text, we also “read” ourselves reading the text. We observe the elements of plot and character, but we also begin to observe the processes that we use to make meaning of the text. The more that we read (and the more we can draw on past reading literature experiences) the better we become at both of these forms of reading. The acts of meta-cognition are transferable to other domains of our lives, especially in the many decisions that we make. There is great value in sharing with others in a classroom not only a sense of the text but also the sense that we have of our mental skills and disposition.

Vulnerability to Simplification and Outright Lies Much of the literature that we keep returning to “speaks truth to power.” It may not only seek to reveal that things are not what they seem but also that authority is frequently undeserved, misdirected and abusive. Much literature in the western tradition seeks to find the right balance between the individual and the communities in which the individual grows, socializes, and works. In its endeavor to examine human nature in all of its complexity, it records the triumphs and the tragedies of humankind. Because writers are drawn to complexity, their works are moral without being overtly moralistic. Most great works can’t be reduced to an aphoristic bromide. Because writers are skillful with language and ask us to be highly attentive to the meaning of words on the page, we can become more attuned to the misuses of language by the many agents of persuasion in our culture. Reading literature helps us to develop our BS detectors.

Relativism and Fragmentation One effect of our rapid movements between screens (smart phones, notebooks, television) is a flattening of information – everything takes on equal importance. While we can celebrate easy availability of information, we may feel incapable of making sense of it all. While in the past we relied on authority to control and explain information, today we must evaluate and synthesize ourselves. Reading literature can assist us in this challenge because it trains the mind to think in terms of structures of meaning. As Stephen Brockman points out, “the World Wide Web is a world of coordinating conjunctions – this and that or that and this – while the world of literature is characterized by subordination – this because of that, and in spite of this, while at the same time, nevertheless, that.”

The Gospel of Utilitarianism Another rule: “It’s only valuable is if it’s useful.” Though the sections above makes the case that reading literature has a number of practical pay-offs, one of the unorthodox reasons for reading literature is that it often has no immediate clear payoff or even that it’s totally irrelevant. An activity set apart from other activities that are measured by the metrics of productivity and self-aggrandizement is an activity worth pursuing. Although a case can be made that literature has a vital place in an education that aims to be “practical, focused, and relevant,” one can make an equal case – one that will be skeptically greeted by students, parents and the public alike to be sure– that literature should remain as a general education course because it is “impractical, diffused, and irrelevant.” A classroom where learning is for learnings sake is a site of resistance and necessary counter-balance to the prevailing utilitarian creed.

The Take-Away  None of the contributors to the Socken collection makes a call to roll back technology or to discard our smart phones, laptops, or ipods. None believe that reading literature is the panacea for all of our personal and social ills. All are interested in advancing ways to creatively combat the condition described in the middle of the 19th century by Ralph Waldo Emerson that “things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”  Which does raise the question of whether we really need a sock-sorting device.

After writing this blog, I came across a review of the latest contribution to the “Preservation of the Reading of Literature Movement,” David Mikics’s Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. It joins such recent works as The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement by Thomas Newkirk, and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.]








About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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