Those who value a civil literate culture have for some time now expressed concern about threats to its continued existence. Enrolment in undergraduate humanities courses has dwindled. The quality of written and spoken English is increasingly characterized by carelessness, crudeness, and ignorance. Independent bookshops have closed, newspapers are in financial difficulties, the sensational or trivial ‘sound bite’ has replaced thoughtful discussion of public affairs, and strident ideologically-based activism has compromised serious debate in the public sphere. The joyful, life-affirming discoveries made by solitary readers far from the clamour of the madding crowd are being overlooked. Only still waters, we appear to have forgotten, run deep—and empty vessels, after all, make the most sound, don’t they?
Two important books on reading have recently drawn attention to this state of affairs. Both Meghan Cox Gurdon in The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading in the Age of Distraction (2019) and Maryanne Wolf in Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018) argue that the quiet enjoyment provided by reading is threatened by ‘distraction,’ by the intrusive effects of “digital dependency.” Cellphones’ ring-tones, peremptory workplace-related e-mails, gossipy texting, the omnipresence of video, and the rants of anonymous uninformed contributors to ‘social media’ can all be combatted, they insist, by reading that begins early, and is deep, wide, and critical. Social media have effectively, if unintentionally, legitimized the provocative diatribes of the proudly uncivil present occupant of the White House, himself, at least in part, a creation of the celebrity media culture he affects to despise and deplore. Maryanne Wolf quotes Barack Obama, a more literate and civil leader than his successor, who worried that for too many young people information has become “a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a means of emancipation.” Wolf also quotes Mark Edmundson, professor of English and author of Why Read? who laments that his students, “swimming in entertainment…have been sealed off from the chance to call everything they’ve valued into question, to look at new ways of life…. For them, education is knowing and lordly spectatorship, never the Socratic dialogue about how one ought to live one’s life.”
Long before they can read for themselves, children need to be read to, asserts Ms. Gurdon, a book critic, essayist, and former foreign correspondent. Those whose parents have read to them share a bond of intimacy with them that gives these children enormous advantages in school and later life. Reading aloud exposes the child to new vocabulary, exercises her imagination, encourages patience and listening skills, helps her to identify herself sympathetically with others, and improves her comprehension while she is beguiled by story. Reading aloud, Gurdon says, “furnishes the mind.” The following dialogue between my four-year-old granddaughter and her mother is surely proof of the kind of sharing that empowers both child and parent:
Mum (reading): “Then Beast said to Beauty, ‘You may go anywhere in the castle except for the West Wing. That is forbidden.’”
Granddaughter (listening, spellbound): “Who is Bidden?”
Mum (after explanation, continuing): “The Beast fought the wolves fiercely and drove them away from Beauty.”
Granddaughter: “Like, drove them in a car?”