Reading is an unavoidable topic in the summer. The most diverse newspapers and magazines fill their pages with tips on works and authors to occupy the hours of the inactive workday. And rightly so, even beyond the commercial demands that drive such proposals. Our vacations put to the test our interior density, our “interior life”, our capacity to be alone with ourselves. Surfing the web while sun-bathing or other ways to try to entertain ourselves or to defeat the boredom during the holidays, testifies to the truth of Pascal’s words of wisdom: “Every calamity that befalls man comes from one thing alone: not knowing how to rest in his chamber” ( Pensees, 139).
“Vacare” in Latin means to fully engage in an activity. Therefore reading, and the formation through reading, is a subject for all seasons. The advice of St. Josemaría Escrivá is truly timeless: “A terrible person is the one who is ignorant but at the same time works tirelessly. Take care that even when you are old and decrepit, you keep wanting to be better trained.” ( Furrow, 538).
Saint Josemaría’s reflection, made in his characteristically sober and direct style, seems to echo that of Newman: “Human nature, left to itself, is susceptible to innumerable feelings, more or less unbecoming, indecorous, petty, and miserable. It is, in no long time, clad and covered by a host of little vices and disgraceful infirmities -jealousies, slynesses, cowardices, frettings, resentments, obstinacies, crookedness in viewing things, vulgar conceit, impertinence, and selfishness. Mental cultivation, though it does not of itself touch the greater wounds of human nature, does a good deal for these lesser defects. In proportion as our intellectual horizon recedes, and we mount up in the knowledge of men and things, so do we make progress in those qualities and that character of mind, which we denote by the word ‘gentleman’ and, if this applies in its measure to the case of all men, whatever their religious principles, much more is it true of a Catholic” ( On the present position of Catholics in England).
The Educational Emergency
The topic of study and formation through reading has many facets. I have chosen to tackle it from the so-called “educational emergency”. For indeed we are in a situation of emergency in education today, starting from the way literature is studied in schools and universities and thus, in the way that one reads or does not read.
Martha C. Nussbaum, professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago says:
“Today we are witnessing a creeping crisis of enormous proportions and global reach- the less it is noticed, the more dangerous it is for the future of democracy: the crisis of education. Seduced by the imperative of economic growth and the countable short-term logic, many countries inflict heavy cuts in the studies of humanities and the arts in favor of the technical skills and practical-scientific knowledge. Hence, while the world becomes larger and more complex, the tools to understand it are becoming poorer and more rudimentary; while innovation requires flexible, open and creative intelligence, education bends on a few stereotypical notions. It’s not about defending an alleged superiority of classic culture versus scientific culture, rather maintaining access to the knowledge that nurtures freedom of thought and word, autonomy of judgment, the strength of the imagination, such as many other preconditions for a mature and responsible humanity.” ( Not for profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, 2011)
If you then reflect upon how literature is taught in Western society, the judgment becomes harsher. Tzvetan Todorov, along with Genette, has been one of the fathers of the “poetics” of the literary discourse. In a brief yet fascinating essay, Todorov denounces how deconstructionism, nihilism, and solipsism- which currently dominate scholastic teaching, literary critique, and writing- are ruining the students’ interest toward literature. In France, for example, it has been calculated that over a few decades enrolling in literary studies at university has dropped from 33 to 10 percent: “Without any stupor, those who graduate learn dogma that excludes literature from having any relationship with the rest of the world. They only study the relationships among the elements of the work itself ” ( La letteratura in pericolo, 2008). These tendencies, interdependent on each other, are based on the idea that “a radical rupture separates the self from the world” and therefore a common world does not exist.
A prominent theologian, who then became Pope Benedict XVI, also pulled the alarm on the educational emergency in his Letter to the Diocese of Rome on the Urgent Task of Education (January 21, 2008). That letter had a remarkable impact in Italy. One outcome was the report The Educational Challenge (La sfida educativa), promoted by the Italian Episcopal Conference and published by a secular editor such as Laterza. We have offered a review online in Familyandmedia ( Link to italian version).
These and other diagnoses, and the opinion shared by many, witness to a failure that is not only scholarly, but precisely educational. Who would be the culprit of such a downfall?
a) The first to be put on trial are the new technologies. Once it was the TV to be demonized, and it still is today, not without reason. Blaming technology has always been an easy scapegoat. The studies and books that condemn the effect of a cultural impoverishment resulting from the new technologies, and again not without reason, are many. We have also taken this into account on our site, for example, in the review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains , 2010.
It is not my intention at this point to go into the technological aspects and their possible consequences on the person and culture, which are undeniable and ambivalent. Every new medium of communication introduces a cultural gain and, at the same time, a loss, as McLuhan demonstrates. Therefore, for example, the printing press extended reading to all social strata and allowed for mandatory universal education. However, as a result, almost the entire oral culture in all of its richness was faded out. Television has changed the way the audiovisual generation imagines, learns, and reasons, just as the internet is changing the habits of the media consumption and the mental circuits of the digital generation. (The printing press promotes a linear, sequential, more logical thought-process whereas an associative thought-process is favored by links). Each technical transformation forms part of human development, and it takes generations to get used to, assimilate and dominate it. In this process of assimilation, that is at the same time social and personal, dysfunctions occur and are often paid for at a high price.
b) The other culprits that may be worthy of blame are the adults, and their indictment is not devoid of reason either. I am referring to Alessandro d’Avenia’s analysis in his article that appeared in Avvenire on June 10, 2010. He tells of the impressions gathered during a long journey throughout all of Italy for conferences and meetings following the success of his debut as a novelist with this work White as Milk, Red as Blood (Bianca come il latte, rossa come il sangue):
“Once after a meeting I held, I heard a professor say: ‘At school, we have to sow doubts, not certainties.’ I don’t sow certainties, rather the desire to live for truth, goodness and beauty. The alternative is not between doubts and certainties, but between meaning and a lack of meaning of life. The age of sad passions (title of a book that every educator should read) is the age that has harnessed the best resources, because the search for truth has been removed from the center of society and relationships. Life is no longer generated because of fear, because there is no truth to follow. Those who pay the consequences of relativistic dictatorship are those who are, by essence, made for truth: the youth. Their sad passions are our lack of interior life and of time, our attachment to material things over people, our weariness, our temptation to give up, our anxiety about wealth and progress, and our consumerism.” - A Better Youth (La meglio gioventù), in Avvenire,10.06.2011.
It is the same diagnosis made by Benedict XVI in the aforementioned letter to the diocese of Rome, except that the Pope is more optimistic and hopeful. It is not about making accusations against the adults or the young people, which nonetheless exist and ought not to be concealed; but it is about understanding and responding to the influence of a cultural environment. “A widespread atmosphere, a mindset and form of culture which induce one to have a doubt about the value of the human person, about the very meaning of truth and good, and ultimately about the goodness of life. It then becomes difficult to pass on from one generation to the next, something that is valid and certain, rules of conduct, credible objectives around which to build one’s own life”. Unlike the economic or scientific progress, “the greatest values of the past cannot be simply inherited; they must be made ours and renewed through an often anguishing personal choice” (idem). Then Benedict XVI continues with some essential guidelines (criteria) on education, which are not to be developed here.
Specialized culture, part of the problem
Ours is a literate culture, but one that generates many functional illiterates, individuals that know everything or almost everything on the intestinal permeability of shellfish, on genes or on DNA…and are unaware of the dignity of the embryo, of a person! Everything is measured, weighed…quantified .
The specialization impoverishes the spirit and the intelligence. When telling about the America he encountered in the 1800’s- very different from the America of today-Tocqueville says: “In America it sometimes happens that the same man works in the field, builds his house, fabricates his utensils, makes his shoes and weaves the fabric that must cover him. This is detrimental to the improvement of the industry, but powerfully serves to develop the intelligence of the work. Nothing tends to materialize man and deprive his work of the faintest trace of spirit more than division of labor” (Democracy in America).
We live in an expert culture: the expert is the new guru of the developed work, the shaman of evolved society. And indeed, the expert cannot be a good government leader: “The individuals that are too narrowly confined to the sphere of professional and specialized exercises, and inevitably in the short narrow circles of inveterate and persisting habits, are rather unsuitable than fit for all the activity that requires a broad knowledge of human things, experience of complex affairs, a comprehensive and synthetic glance on the set of variously intertwined internal and external interests , which constitutes the entirety of the multi-faceted organism that we call the State” (Burke, On the French Revolution).
The therapy of reading and cultivating the narrative imagination
Nussbaum, after having discussed the importance of forming critical thought (“Socratic pedagogy”, in other words, teaching to reason, to think on one’s own), goes deeper into this topic in Chapter 6 titled “Cultivating Imagination: Literature and the Arts”. She affirms “citizens cannot relate well with the world around them by factual knowledge and logic alone. The third ability of the citizen, closely related to the first one, is what we call the narrative imagination” (p.111).
It’s the same exact resource that Todorov proposes as part of the formation of young people for the good of their professional future: “What a better introduction to understanding human behaviors and feelings than delving into the works of great writers that have dedicated themselves to this task for millennia. So what better preparation is there for all professions based on human relationships? If literature is understood in this way, and if teaching is oriented in this manner, what more precious help could be given to the future student of law or political science, or future social worker, or anyone involved in psychotherapy, or the historian or the sociologist? Wouldn’t it be an exceptional education to have Shakespeare and Sofocle, Dostoevskij and Proust as teachers?”
This is why we must read. The grounds, the reasons, and the arguments for reading are varied: 1) There are those who read out of duty. Italian high school students study, analyze, and dissect one of the masterpieces of Italian literature, The Betrothed ( I Promessi sposi), but perhaps have not read it; unlike the foreign students of one of my “Great books” courses who are enthusiastic about it. 2) Others read to distract themselves. My father used to read for pleasure, my mother read to relax after a tiring day taking care of five small rug rats- me and my brothers. Some people devour the so-called brain cleaners- books that fulfill their function: to clean the brain, distract oneself…but leaving you intellectually unfed. 3) Others read out of snobbery or curiosity. These chase the fads- best sellers. They ought to remember the advice of Marcus Aurelius: “Do not let yourselves be taken by your thirst for books, if you want to die in peace.” 4) Others, or in other moments, read to study. No objections here, but that’s another story.
There are obviously not rules for reading, but there are criteria. Time is a scarce resource and the supply of books is immeasurable. Assuming that a good reader reads 15-20 books yearly, he would fill his brain, his soul, with a shelf from a modest communal library. If it were only for this reason, it is necessary to be selective and allow yourself to be advised in order to not loose time; and even more so with books regarding faith or morality. It would be a real pity to risk one’s faith for digesting bad literature or to loose grace over an inappropriate book.
Read, therefore, “true books”. Guitton affirms that “a true book has been written in virtue of a necessity, just as a true reading is inspired by avidity and desire (And just as it is advisable to renounce reading if you don’t feel the desire, one should avoid writing a book if they were convinced of a duty to transmit that which no one else could say)” ( Intellectual work).
It is necessary to read romances, history books, books on science and philosophy- “books of pure truth”- and of course the Bible, because as Guitton states, “in our civilization, the Bible is the book par excellence. What is most admirable is that it is not about a book, but a collection of all the genres of books, except for the abstract. In a small volume, it contains all of the types of words, from codes to love songs, going from placid proverbs, cries, yells, to parables and bloody and impossible stories.” In short, it is necessary to read literature, because literature “is the most dense, the most eloquent of daily life, but not radically diverse. Literature broadens our universe and incites us to imagine other ways of conceiving and organizing it. We are all made by what others have given us: in the first place, our parents and then those around us. Literature opens up infinite possibilities to interact with others and become enriched therefore infinitely. It gives us irreplaceable sensations in a way that makes the real work more meaningful and more beautiful. Apart from being a simple pleasure, a distraction reserved for educated people, literature permits each person to respond better to their own human vocation” (Todorov).
In the end, as Guitton says, “the art of reading well, if I am able to explain myself, consists in forming a second Bible for oneself; and to read the first with intelligence, and the second- which is ours- with faith.”