Wednesday, April 17 2024


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

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 (


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

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

“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.”

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