The very reason I desire so strongly to argue with Alan Jacobs’ article…is because I greatly suspect his assertions to be correct. I fear that a culture of enjoying reading, reading for its own joys, is unsustainable. Put it in these terms: over the last 150 years, the trend has switched in the U.S. such that illiterates are in the minority. Nearly anyone can read (one can’t drive unless one is able to approximate at least) – and many do! Surely this reverse is a good thing, but there is a further distinction to be made; for most reading is first and foremost a pragmatic activity (she reads in order to).
But…our colleges are supposed to teach a deeper pragmatism in their liberal arts curricula, and this requires that students learn indirectly through more exhaustive readings. By imposing hefty requirements, students learn (hopefully) how to skim well, how to research well (by learning what ends not to follow), and, perhaps, how to represent another’s thoughts well in dialogue with a greater conversation. All such skills can be learned with a great deal of effort. But…but, do such activities teach one to enjoy the activity herself (or do they merely reinforce the ‘pragmatism first’ approach to reading)?
My own story matches and differs from Jacobs; perhaps readers are born (meaning the proclivity to enjoy, not the ability to enjoy). I loved losing myself in many sorts of tales and dedicated myself as a wee one to getting past whatever Spot was doing in order to find more intriguing stories. Certainly I was overfed (and my interests waxed and waned) but for the most part I could find works I enjoyed. As I made my way into middle and high school, there were more activities elsewhere deserving attention and less books worthy of pursuit. Reading was an activity I would begin on a whim, but the only works I would complete were required readings. Even though my last two years before college involved a Great Books curriculum, I still only truly found enjoyment in the activity if I had nothing else to do.
Beginning an Engineering (or other intensive) degree was a good way to kill any free time (to remove the possibility or ‘leisure’ space) needed for such activities. By the end of my second year I barely read anything of interest at all. If I found spare time it was to be spent escaping the exertions and exhaustion of my degree or what little social life I maintained (yes, introverts really do tend to wear out in social settings…searching for recharge station…) – but such escape was not to be found amongst books (no, I don’t think reading is mere escapism either).
So, in my case, education provided a stressor which did not introduce me to enjoying reading, but instead drove me from it. When I decided to switch schools it was because I did n’t want to win the prize of entering my profession. Once determined, there was no returning by that way – though the way before me was. I had little idea what was in store…
I received a surprising phone call: some professor of English at my new school was inviting me to join the newly formed ‘Honors program’. Clearly she had n’t read anything I had written to date. I ultimately caved and agreed to join her class. ‘Film and Culture’ with Dr. Janice Gable quickly became an outlet for so much of what had been pent up in my frustrating two prior years of study. Sarcasm is encouraged here? We shall have to see for how long! Truly, that class and that group of people restored a confidence I had lost…I even discover’d that if I could only find a worthwhile subject to study that I could execute a meaningful paper.
The joy of reading for its own sake I did n’t discover again until the next Summer (’06). I had learned that some things surprisingly came naturally to me: quickly understanding the means by which one dissects an argument, a love for languages, and the joys of a great discussion. That class was well timed (as were many other things). Reading for enjoyment was still something other smart people did – ’till I stumbled across C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces…and at last that light was relit (if dimly at first).
*~dedicated to the memory of Janice Gable; may you find rest at His side (and not ask too many impertinent questions)~