Why You Do Have to Read This

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I have often found that, in the United States today, some Americans have come to dispute the validity of fairly obvious truths. For example, adults today can convince themselves that cable television news provides only the truth, that cutting or raising taxes will solve all of our problems, that excessive pollution has no effect on the environment, and that some day gas station bathrooms will be cleaned and smell pleasantly of flowers. Now, we teenagers can easily laugh at the magnitude of our adults’ self-deception; but an even larger vantage point would tell us that we, too, can share in the delusion. Everyday, we whisper to ourselves such lies as “I don’t have to study for that test,” “I’ll sign off Facebook right after I update my status,” or even, “I love to read.”

Some of us may object to my labeling of that final statement as a lie. After all, within the past ten years, we have witnessed a surge in the popularity and appeal of young adult books as varied, in subject and in quality, as Harry Potter and Twilight. However, while the sales for young adult works speak for themselves, one cannot argue that such purely recreational texts present an enduring challenge to the reader. Therefore, when I say reading, I mean a more delicate and perhaps rewarding process, and one which has almost incontrovertibly suffered a decline within our age group- the reading of “literary” or “classic” novels, poems, and plays.

Consider, for a moment, your own English class. When your teacher introduces a new work for study, how do your fellow students respond? According to sophisticated research, also known as my personal experience, the reaction is largely one of dissatisfaction. Novels like The Scarlet Letter and plays like Macbeth are viewed as far too complex and time-consuming in an era when we already feel as if we lack adequate time to complete our “more important” schoolwork. “Besides,” a student might say, “what do overwrought fables about guilt, ambition, and sexy Puritans have to do with me?”

Hopefully you see my point.

For obvious reasons, the attitudes described above are hardly healthy ones to hold towards reading. Literary reading has shaped the minds and consciences of generations, and influenced great decision-making in every era of history. Should we fail to respect the strange, if often difficult, power of reading, we could weaken our ability to understand not only the past but even each other. Hence, we have to open up our minds (and perhaps our schedules) to the pleasures and enlightenment that heavier reading can bring us. In essence, we can realize precisely what the works we read in school have to do with us.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that one of reading’s greatest benefits lies in its ability to have nothing to do with us, or at least with the limited scope of our experience. Especially at our young age, we only partake in so much of life. As a result, we tend to belong to a more narrow-minded stratum of life; while certainly the adult world experiences its own share of cattiness and excessive cruelty, those two qualities seems to preponderate less shamefully in our own world. In other words, our lack of understanding for the lives of others renders us less likely to empathize with them, and logically more likely to mistreat them.

The reading of literature- of truly great works- expands that restricted viewpoint. In novels and plays, great writers present to the reader the psyches of people far removed from what we could possibly experience. Let us take as an example Macbeth, a work whose ubiquity on curricula will hopefully render it relatable. Over the course of the five-act drama, we are repeated confronted with the fevered mind of a noble man who, through the twin flaws of imagination and ambition, degenerates into a usurper, a murderer, and a tyrant. At face value, Macbeth is someone whom almost all of us would deem unworthy of sympathy. Much as we do with people in real life, we dismiss the possibility that we share any deep similarities with the object of our disdain.

Yet drama can play strange tricks on its readers. The action of Macbeth is relentless, even stripped. In order to find a means of grounding ourselves, we are forced into the perspective of Macbeth himself. What we find there can surprise us. We have all felt irrational desires for things we cannot easily obtain through ethical means, as Macbeth has; all that separates us from Macbeth is our unwillingness to submit to those desires- for now. Thus, we must ask ourselves, are we indeed so superior to the Scottish king that we cannot fall prey to his pitfalls? Once we formulate that question, we condemn Macbeth less harshly. We found part of ourselves in him. Literature has broadened our ability to empathize with humanity.

It is only a slight leap to run from an exhortation to sympathy to a call to arms. Although the value of literature is by no means dependent upon political content, it can often make it more palatable to us to see in it a predilection for our own values. Through their novels, writers like Zola and Dickens were often able to enact positive change in the worlds in which they lived. Moreover, modern writers such as America’s own Toni Morrison continue to work with a politically astute pen which alerts us to the injustices which have not dissipated with time. Our world is a better place due to reading.

I now return to a question I posed earlier but which I have not yet addressed. Essentially, the question was, “What do old stories, written by dead people, have to do with me?” The question is in many ways the English-class variant of “when am I ever going to use this,” and the thought processes which motivate it deserve equal scorn. Perhaps the best answer for someone intent upon using that question as a weapon is that old stories of everything to do with you. They have shaped your world. They have shaped people with whom you speak, in ways you may not be able to understand yet. They would shape you, if only you would let them.

So let’s dispense with our reluctance towards reading. Pick up some great dusty tome that deeply frightens you, and try it. At the very least, it will never leave you worse off than you were before; and at the most, it will prove that you have, at last, learned to love to reading in all its forms- even when it is at its most difficult, beautiful, powerful, and enriching.





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