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Reading books is already a niche activity. Our lives are not so much interrupted by as constituted of distractions. Sitting down to read a book requires elbowing everybody and everything aside.
Last week, Mark Bauerlein of First Things wrote a witty invective against the National Council of Teachers of English for their most recent posturing—a high moral stance against “book reading.” The NCTE says that “as stewards of the communication arts,” its members must “confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valorized above the full range of literacy competencies students should master.” Decode the jargon and you see that the awkward phrase “literacy competencies” must mean something besides reading, at least reading anything printed—and especially anything printed in a book. The “communication arts” on exhibit in the statement, by the way, are hardly exemplary, and Bauerlein makes considerable fun of words like “valorized.” But the upshot is that a curriculum like ours at Wyoming Catholic College, where we read “Great Books,” now needs to be defended from English teachers.
Reading books is already a niche activity. Our lives are not so much interrupted by as constituted of distractions. Almost everyone spends a major part of every day looking at a screen with access to the Internet; everyone is subject to intrusions, often several times a minute, even if no one else is physically present—email, text, phone, and other means beyond my sophistication. Sitting down to read a book requires elbowing everybody and everything aside, and what gets read under this uneasy regime of escape is likely to be very simply written. Best-selling novels—there are exceptions, granted—don’t push very hard on stylistic subtlety. The self-help books that tell us how to improve our habits or set aside time for “deep work” would not challenge a sixth-grader’s capacities. In fact, every sentence feels as though it were test-marketed for distraction resistance in a Starbucks or a Costco parking lot.
But good books demand our attention, great ones our full capacities. Any good book elicits the reader’s pleased compliance, but great ones move the whole soul. Drawn in, I follow where the mind of the author leads. If I’m reading well, I notice patterns and repetitions, I take metaphors seriously, I connect one passage with another. I underline, scribble on any available white space, and flip back through pages to find earlier passages when I sense a relation between parts of the narrative or argument. Reading is the action of holding complex things in mind, recalling previous details and anticipating new ones in the weave of meanings.
Self-forgetful engagement with a great book qualifies as meaningful in itself, the quality that characterizes leisure, because it involves what Josef Pieper praises as “receptive openness and attentive silence.” It is like a conversation with a person of wisdom and authority whose manner of speaking requires attention to tone and irony and what might remain unspoken. Finishing a session with such a book, I rise from the chair as if from a superb meal: the excellences exceed my present capacities of appreciation, but they move me to become more than I am. I remember reading Othello three times in one weekend when I was a junior in college. It was astonishing. The experience revealed that there must be more to me than I thought if such a play could exist in the world I inhabited.
Last week, when I dipped back into Plato after not teaching all year, it reminded me that reading great books also means entering a conversation with other books in the tradition—Plato’s conversation with Homer, for example. All through the early parts of the dialogue, Socrates quotes Homer, usually to fault him for misleading his readers about the gods or the virtues. But in Book IV of the Republic, Socrates and Glaucon track down wisdom, courage, and moderation in their imagined city, and only justice remains, says Socrates: “So then, Glaucon, we must, like hunters, now station ourselves in a circle around the thicket and pay attention so that justice doesn’t slip through somewhere and disappear into obscurity.”
This metaphor of the prey in the thicket will remind any Greek schooled in Homer of a famous passage in Book XIX of the Odyssey. When Odysseus goes as a young man to visit his grandfather Autolykos, he and his uncles go on a hunt in a wooded valley, where the dogs find the spoor:
Now there, inside that thick of the bush, was the lair of a great boar.
Neither could the force of wet-blown winds penetrate here,
nor could the shining sun ever strike through it with his rays, nor yet
could the rain pass all the way through it, so close together
it grew, with the fall of leaves drifted in dense profusion.
Odysseus rushes the thicket, and although he kills the beast, “the boar [drives] /over the knee, and with his tusk [gashes] much of the flesh, / tearing sideways.”
With his simile of hunters and the background of Homer, Socrates subtly likens justice to a great boar in a thicket and Glaucon to the young Odysseus. What is he saying to his young interlocutor about the real cost of knowledge? Might it not demand extraordinary boldness? Might it not leave him scarred, as the boar does Odysseus? Justice might not be a notion in the mind, but a dangerous business that requires wisdom, courage, and moderation.
If the NCTE gets its way, we will be free of such old concerns. Don’t give such importance to reading books, we are instructed: instead, encourage students to master “the full range of the literacy competencies.” You might want to say that out loud: “literacy competencies.” Tease out the difficulties of saying these two words (both nouns, by the way) in juxtaposition. “Literacy competencies.” Please, say it until the full barbarity of the language is unmistakable. The hope for a decent future does not lie in such “competencies,” but in a beautiful leisure of reading that the National Council of English Teachers cannot begin to imagine.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College.
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