One of the challenges facing contemporary society is the shrinking percentage of active readers. (I say percentage, but fear what we face is more a shrinkage of actual numbers.) It’s not simply the decline in readers of fiction or the number of people who recite poetry from heart, but the lack of literary engagement of any kind. So I rat on myself early here, with my belief that the act of reading carries social value – especially when serious literature is the subject.
It is no mere coincidence that Americans’ widespread ignorance of history and our political system has accompanied the growing addiction to a sensual media orgy – large-screen television, movies, rock music – while habitual reading, including newspapers, has been declining. That is, what is superficial and easy – and ephemeral — has the upper hand. Little is demanded of the receptor, and loud excitement, rather than a deepened awareness, is the expectation; escapism, rather than engagement with life itself. Several European writers have suggested something more troubling is at work – the loss of reflective people, contemplative individuals – a theme I see developed, obliquely, in Stephen L. Carter’s Integrity and the labor of moral discernment. In other words, is the mind being enlarged or merely numbed? The fact that so many people cannot name their own senators or governors or are largely ignorant of geography, yet recognize countless actors and rockers points toward a disintegration of community and social service.
Paradoxically, the act of reading is largely a private enterprise. It’s a dialogue between a reader and a writer, sometimes separated by continents or centuries. It requires more activity from the receptor than a movie, short song, or television sit-com does – in fact, one of the concerns these days is the atrophied state of the imagination among those who have been raised on “electronic media” rather than the printed word or, for that matter, stories read aloud or in radio broadcasts. (There are, after all, degrees of imaginative challenge.) In the act of reading, there are no visible intermediaries – no actors, soundtrack, directors, sets, or costumes. The editor or printer or bookseller is of an entire order altogether. Here, the reader and the writer engage in a dance of the soul or a passionate argument. (Serious readers can be as demanding as lovers when it comes to this relationship.)
But the act of reading can also take us into the existence of another person, viewing the world from within that context. A movie, in contrast, leaves us looking at that person, hoping for a hint of emotion or profundity. The author can reflect on the situation, suggest ranges of experience, voice moral struggles in ways a movie might only touch in passing.
Here I think, too, of large-scale musical compositions – symphonies or string quartets, for instance – that demand intense listening, inducing reflection and emotional awareness. Like reading, the audience for serious music is in decline – and with it, a link to the riches of the past and its aspirations and wisdom.