The powerful pull of reading
Published: January 25, 2006
|With cell phones, TV and the Internet competing for students' attention, classic children's books still have the power to draw readers in and keep their attention.|
In E.B. White's "The Future of Reading," published in The New Yorker in 1951, an unnamed college president is reported to have "remarked that in 50 years 'only five percent of the people will be reading.' " Fifty-three years on, that gloomy prophecy, while not wholly fulfilled, is looking a lot more accurate than we would like.
I don't have much stomach for attesting to just how bad the problem has become. Every English teacher has tales of woe. Still less do I have a master plan for addressing, let alone solving, a problem that is so intertwined with technology and with other developments that are less visible but equally pervasive. My intention here is to make an obvious point, to quote a couple of poems, and to offer a local, limited ray of hope.
First, the obvious point. In "The Future of Reading," White adverts more than once to the "audio-visual age" in which he reluctantly finds himself. The media "ask no discipline of the mind" and "are already giving the room the languor of an opium parlor." The notion that TV, and now video games and computers, conduce to passivity, couch potatohood and obesity, too, is now a commonplace. I only want to submit the observation that it is not only, or even chiefly, passivity that afflicts my students, coming between them and the printed page. It is also distraction. When it comes to fostering a rhythm of infinite interruptibility, the cell phone is a lot more insidious than the TV screen. My students aren't lazy. On the contrary, they're multitasking. But multitasking doesn't consort well with reading.
This incompatibility features in two wonderful American poems about reading: Randall Jarrell's "Children Selecting Books in a Library," from the 1950s, and Richard Wilbur's "Playboy," from the 1960s. Jarrell's evocation of the browsing children suggests a ruminating animal.
The child's head, bent to the book-colored shelves,
Is slow and sidelong and food-gathering,
Moving in blind grace ...
Wilbur's stock boy reading Playboy on his lunch break shows (even though his choice of reading matter hardly counts as literary reading) a kindred absorption. Even the word "sidelong" reappears.
Sometimes, without a glance, he feeds himself,
The left hand, like a mother-bird in flight,
Brings him a sandwich for a sidelong bite,
And then returns it to its dusty shelf.
Food is secondary to the bond of eye and page; or rather, the page is the food. In their evocations of a rapt attentiveness, a peacefully voracious state of abstraction, the two poems seem-as poems often do-to be in conversation with each other. White again, in "The Future of Reading":
Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces a sort of ecstasy...a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.
And why all this White? I came upon "The Future of Reading" in connection with the fact that for the past week I've been teaching Charlotte's Web to my Rutgers undergraduates in a course about children's literature. Many of the students had never read Charlotte's Web or The Wizard of Oz or The Secret Garden, though many had seen movies based on these stories. For some of the students-surely not all-to discover, or in some cases rediscover, these wonderful books turned out to be a source of unexpected pleasure; the pleasure of absorption, of surrender, of making the outside world extraneous.
Is it a coincidence that Charlotte tells Wilbur stories, that Mary tells Colin stories, even that Peter Pan flies in through a window because he wants to hear the end of Cinderella? It is too late to give college students the bookish childhoods many people my age were blessed with. But it is never too late to introduce them to, to demonstrate, or-in Keats's phrase-to prove on their pulses the powerful pull of reading, a force that, oddly enough, features as a central theme in so many stories for adults and children alike.
Rachel Hadas studied classics at Harvard, poetry at Johns Hopkins, and comparative literature at Princeton. She teaches in the English Department of the Newark, N.J., campus of Rutgers University, and has also taught occasional courses in both literature and writing at Columbia and Princeton, as well as sometimes serving on the poetry faculty of the Sewanee Writers' Conference. She has published 12 books of poetry, essays and translated words.
Reprinted with permission from the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics newsletter .
--Posted Jan. 25, 2006