Results of surveys consistently point out that many younger folk have not read a single book of literature. Their reading habits have become fragmented due to the bite-size nuggets of information that come with text messages and social media, taking up an inordinate amount of time that they could otherwise devote to reading books that matter. Certainly, reading messages on the computer or smart phone is not the same as reading a book. There is no intellectual engagement that allows oneself the time and space to get lost in another person’s mind, because in so doing we find ourselves. Susan Sontag reminds us that books “give us the model of self-transcendence … a way of being fully human.”
According to Marcel Proust, a great book shows us the way to ourselves, and beyond ourselves: “Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it.” Certainly, what Sontag and Proust say about reading books is not possible in the world of computers or smart phones
Reading literature requires “deep reading” and not the superficial reading that many engage in on the Web. Reading literature, which is a rich and a very distinctive experience, is very different from merely information-driven reading found on the Web. Deep reading is slow, immersive, and is full of sensory detail and emotional and moral complexities unlike reading on the computer or our smart phones. In his Los Angeles Times article, “The Lost Art of Reading,” David L. Ulin says: “Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves. In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumour and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know.”
It’s indeed sad to see that the practice of reading great books is fast disappearing when, in fact, several important research findings indicate that reading literature makes us more intelligent and nicer people. In a major study conducted by psychologists Raymond Mar at York University in Canada and Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto in 2006 and 2009 respectively, it was found that individuals who often read literature are in a better position to relate to other people and empathise with them. They are also able to view the world from the perspective of others. In a similar study conducted in 2010, Mar found similar results once again: the more young people read literature, the more sharp their minds are and they are better prepared to deal with the complexities in life. Victor Nell, who teaches psychology at the University of South Africa, also conducted important behavioural research and found that when readers read fiction in a slow and unhurried manner, it gives them an opportunity to enrich their reading experience not only with contemplation, critical reflection and analysis but also with the interplay of their own memories and emotions. This kind of unhurried reading provides the readers to engage in a close, intimate relationship with the author, which is often likened to an intimate romance between the reader and the author. Unfortunately, this kind of a slow, leisurely reading, which literary critic Frank Kermode calls “spiritual reading,” is not present when we are engaged with our computers or smart phones, where reading becomes “carnal” in Kermode’s words. In the carnal mode of reading, individuals devour information only for pragmatic and instrumental reasons. This kind of carnal reading is devoid of any kind of spiritual awakenings that great literary works often stir in us.
Contemporary research studies have not only shown that we become better human beings by reading literature but we can also cope more effectively with boredom, loneliness, depression and other ailments. Literature has been known to help us deal with our personal challenges from time immemorial. Literature curing people of several kinds of emotional ailments also known as “bibliotherapy” was a common practice in ancient Egypt where libraries were regarded as the “clinics of the soul.” Similarly, in ancient Greece, both literature and philosophy were a favourite pastime. Aristotle argued in Metaphysics that it was quite natural for humans to pursue knowledge and that acquaintance with both philosophy and literature was essential for one’s survival and growth. In fact, it was during the Tang dynasty in China between 7th and 10 centuries CE that literature was most venerated. During the Tang period, which is viewed as the golden age of China, literature, which was regarded as the most respected form of expression and creativity, was often used to cure emotional afflictions.The crucial role that literature played in the lives of people was also recognised during the Age of Enlightenment. Adam Smith, Rousseau, Friedrich Schiller, and Voltaire, among others, regarded literature as the fountain of human knowledge and ethics. These great thinkers believed that literature had a vitally important role in both civic and moral education, arguing that people needed to read and write literature, which would emancipate them from prejudices and superstition. The discussion and debates about the role and function of literature continued unabated in the post Enlightenment period, when novels emerged as the mainstay of modern literature. As literature moved from romanticism to realism and on to naturalism, novels continued to help amplify our experience and extend our contacts with our fellow beings beyond our personal lot.
It’s often the prodigious power of literature that provided us the rich context and meaning to the trials and triumphs of humans whom we didn’t know personally, but we could identify with on a deeper, spiritual level. James Baldwin beautifully explained how literature could help us understand our own pain and suffering by putting ourselves in another’s shoes ~ “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” Certainly, in our world of computers and reading text messages on our smart phones and iPads, it is simply not possible to have this kind of a deep connection where our spirits are touched, which Baldwin described.
It is without any doubt that the end of the age of reading literature will become a reality unless we do something to preserve it. Can we really afford to have future generations grow up online without the intellectual and emotional enrichment that reading literary works offer? If we let generations to believe that carnal reading is all there is and not encourage them to engage in the spiritual reading that literature demands, we will deprive them of an enlightening and exhilarating experience that will help expand them as human beings. As parents and educators, let’s make sure that Aldous Huxley’s prediction in Brave New World, where there is only a single copy of Shakespeare left, never becomes a reality.