For those students interested (and there seem to be fewer and fewer) I have a list of “recommended” books … books which have touched me over these many years. And when those students interested enough, are given a copy of the list, one of their first comments is: “You have read all of these books?” And I say that I have, adding that given my age, I have had ample time to read.
In my 56 years of teaching university students, I have felt that reading books required no explanation much less requiring a defence of reading. Books are an indispensable part of one’s intellectual life. Today, I encounter university students who cannot remember the title of the last book they read for pleasure; and I continue to be further struck by the number of homes I visit where there are no books in sight.
It does appear that in our age, an age driven by the engines of technology, commerce and consumerism, a decline in the frequency and breadth of reading has occurred. The precise causes of intellectual sloth are complex, however we can list some contributing factors.
When our parents read to us and then when we first began to read it was an experience of the imagination requiring a look inward, studying what we heard, what we thought, constantly examining what we believed … an exquisitely reflective process. But as Sven Birkerts writes in his “The Gutenberg Elegies”, the climate in our modern world “discourages interiority”. The burgeoning technology with all its elaborate gadgetry insists on a distracting “exteriority”; the “outside” constantly intrudes.
Living as we are in our own acknowledged age of anxiety, people generally turn their backs on isolating solitude and look outside themselves for superficial answers that soothe and provide symptomatic relief, but yet may leave us feeling empty. Reading requires a silence that encourages contemplation, reflection and a widening scope of the imagination.
Another problem is that with our worship of the individual, some of us may be reluctant to submit to the wisdom of an author and the power of the written word. Reading a work written by an author who knows more about a subject than we do, requires in you and me, an act of submission, surely difficult for those of us who already feel that we may “know it all”.
What is most deeply satisfying in reading books is that we discover our common humanity and such is the mortar of community. Carl Rogers, founder of “client centred therapy” once included in his list of “significant learnings” the revelation that one’s intimate and thought-to-be singular personal experiences, when shared are revealed to be experiences that many others had experienced as well.
Author James Baldwin once wrote: “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, or who had ever been alive.”
My recommended reading list is available to all my students, and while I never argue that the list is exhaustive, those listed are books that have touched me and my own interior world most deeply. Those books have shaped and nourished my inner life. If our students are not encouraged to do wide, elective reading (and we must provide them with the time) they will ultimately feel deeply cheated, as they face their more complicated lives.
Don Morgenson is professor emeritus in psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University.
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