How serious is our society’s literacy problem? Unless we commit to being serious readers of a shared canon, we might as well stop reading altogether.
Earlier this week, New York City’s department of education released the results of a new study about literacy. Surveying 1,000 students at 20 public schools, the study found that those trained under a program called Core Knowledge—which focuses on nonfiction texts and revolves around a core of common learning—did considerably better than those who adhered to other methods of reading comprehension.
At first glance, the result should come as no surprise. It seems obvious that kids read better when they read in context—reading Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” say, after learning all about the shift from the Enlightenment to Romanticism—and that nurturing an intellectual environment in which informed students discuss the intricacies of shared knowledge is a better way of producing intelligent human beings than, say, merely encouraging kids to read out loud. But the survey made news in part because its conclusions are no longer considered obvious to us at all. In school and long after, we as a society have rejected the thick weave of common culture for the gossamer of individual opinions.
It has made us a culture of poor readers, middling writers, and unfortunate human beings. There is only way out of this quagmire, and it’s by going further in.
Consider the following paragraph, in which two characters, written by a famous English author, are chatting.
“The stars, sir,” says one of them.
“Stars?” asks the other.
“What about them?”
“I was merely directing your attention to them, sir. Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.”
If it sounds Shakespearean, it’s because it is; the whole business of heaven and gold is lifted from Lorenzo’s speech to Jessica in the final act of The Merchant of Venice. But the book quoted from isn’t the bard’s; it’s P.G. Wodehouse’s Joy in the Morning, and the conversation takes places between the bumbling Bertie Wooster and his cunning valet Jeeves. In case you’re wondering what kind of book it is, let me just say that two of the main characters are named Boko Fittleworth and Stilton Cheesewright, and that the plot comes to its crescendo in a roaring scene involving a clandestine meeting at a potting shed. In other words, it’s popular stuff. But Wodehouse—who wrote for Broadway and Hollywood, sold millions of books and had his finger on the pulse of public preference—felt free to pepper his blockbuster comic novel with ample references to all things highbrow—the title itself is borrowed from Psalms 30:5—knowing full well that his readers, while not the literary sort, would still get them, marvel at Jeeves’ erudition, and laugh when Bertie, a few pages later, shows his ignorance by attributing the bit about the floor of heaven to Jeeves.
That was 1946. Today, it’s safe to assume that very few authors, even if they had at their disposal Wodehouse’s imperial command of Shakespeare, would feel inclined to quote the bard in such a nuanced and playful way. They’d be right, of course: Mention patines of bright gold to today’s reading public, and they’re more likely to attribute the sentiment to a Kardashian than to Shakespeare.
The fault is in ourselves. For starters, we stupidly discarded the tradition of the Great Books program, selling that fantastic cultural birthright for the mess of pottage that is identity politics, and finding our fathers—from Plato to Pope—wanting, not for the content of their character but for the color of their skin and the nature of their genitalia. But our blunders extend from the institutional to the personal: Lacking the solid foundation that only real education can bestow, we choose at random, read at leisure, lack context, and, like those unfortunate many in New York’s schools who were not exposed to the Core Knowledge program, we fail to understand. What we need, then, is reform.
Here’s a start: If you consider reading simply a pastime, stop reading. Watch movies: They are less demanding on your schedule, tend to have considerably more nudity, and are generally easier to bring up in conversation. Let the faculties of your mind previously dedicated to parsing text commit themselves instead to better, more needful uses, like mastering Angry Birds. Let reading go gently into the good night and take its place alongside archery and woodcarving in the pantheon of pastimes past, previously popular and currently the domain of the few and the carefully trained.
But if you’re serious about reading—or, for that matter, about your education—see to it attentively. Revisit Homer and read your way through human history. Don’t stop until you hit Kafka. Or, better yet, don’t stop until you see the entire vista of our culture spread before you and feel yourself every bit a part of it.
The People of the Book, of course, realized this about books a very long time ago. At the core of our being is a shared text, which we spend eternity debating. Our discussions, our disputes, our creative feats—all stem from it. Take away our common canon and we’re left with that most debased and meaningless of commodities: opinions. In some strange way, that old chestnut about two Jews having three opinions gets it all wrong. What Jews excel in aren’t opinions—the carefree and baseless expression of personal sentiment—but responsa, attempts to make sense of life that are rooted in a distinct tradition and a strong commitment to exploring and understanding its intricacies.
But ours, alas, is not a very Jewish time. Opinions are king. Emotions trump education. This goes for writers as well as readers; just note the ascent of the memoir. Of course, the genre of self-ascription as such should not be altogether dismissed. If one, say, happens to be the Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, and had fought the Second Boer War, and had sponsored the campaign in Gallipoli, and had rescued the world from the jaws of tyranny, and had written the definitive history of the English-speaking peoples, and had won the Nobel Prize in literature for his efforts, one should most definitely sit down to write a memoir. Heck, make that two. But if one’s designs on posterity involve writing an inane and intermittently amusing account of traveling somewhere banal and meeting some, like, really crazy people, one ought to take a cue from Sir Winston and first live a life truly worth writing about. Or, at the very least, one should follow Montaigne’s example, constantly ask “What do I know?” and produce a personal reflection worthy of the ages. Otherwise, we’d be well-served if these writers, like their readers, abandoned the literary pursuit to those willing to take it seriously, and busied themselves instead with the less rigorous and more remunerative undertakings of popular entertainment.
Much of what I had just written, I imagine, might send many readers into fits of modern indignation. Why, after all, shouldn’t people read whatever they want for their own pleasure? And why shouldn’t writers feel free to share their points of view? The blunt answer is that points of view do not matter in the least. Points of view are to knowledge what dessert is to vegetables: You earn one only by first consuming the other.
Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a document of the cravings of 1960s America, and an attempt to bring the Holocaust to bear on America