The Unexamined Life and the Fate of Serious Reading

A serious book about serious reading. By “serious” I mean a book that takes comparatively serious effort. But Bound to Please is also a pleasing book, for those who make the effort. You’ll know what I mean by “serious” and “pleasing” when you read the following selection. Author Michael Dirda comments on a report issued by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—called “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” The preface to that report is by Dana Gioia, a distinguished poet and critic.

“’Reading at Risk’ is right to lament the decline of what I will forthrightly call bookishness. As the report implies, the Internet seems to have delivered a possibly knockout punch. Our children now can scarcely use a library and instead look to the Web when they need to learn just about anything. We all just click away with the mouse and remote control, speeding through a blur of links, messages, images, data of all sorts. Is this reading? As Gioia reminds us, ‘print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability—and the many sorts of human continuity it allows—would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.’

 

“Yes, the Internet has allowed fans of Finnegans Wake and Dorothy Sayers and the English ghost story to gather and share their knowledge. Web sites and chat rooms do encourage people from around the world to form digital communities. But the computer must seem a far more ambiguous gift to anyone who has ever faced screenfuls of spam, or discovered that hours are eaten up just answering email, or found their colleagues drooling over pixellated lovelies, or noticed that their children had stopped going outside because they were unable to tear themselves away from bloody, digitized battles, or simply realized that they themselves felt incomplete when not online every minute of the day—and half the night. In other words, virtually all of us recognize that that flat-screen monitor before our eyes casts an insidious spell, and all too often it seems that the best minds of the next generation—and more than a few of our own—are being lost to its insidious, relentless ensorcellments. Who now among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly edgy’?

 

“Americans can still be smart and creative, but the pressure of the times is oriented toward quickness—we want instant messaging, live news breaks, fast food, mobile phoning, and snap judgments. As a result, we are growing into a shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere speed and spectacle in all aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that just maybe we’ve shortchanged our better selves, that we might have listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art, read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because it was time to tune into Law and Order reruns, or jack into a WarCraft game on our home computer, or get back to the latest made-for-TV best seller. Sometimes nonetheless, late at night or when faced with one of life’s true crises, we will surprise in ourselves what poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.”

MDirda-Book Cover-Bound to Please

Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education—Essays on Great Writers and Their Books
Author: Michael Dirda
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Copyright 2005 by Michael Dirda
Pages xxv-xxvi

Questions to Consider:
1. Dirda compares serious reading with the Internet, to draw attention to the special value of reading real books. What values are compromised when the print-culture gives way to the Web-culture?
2. What is Dirda’s basic thesis? What do you find most convincing about his thesis?
3. How do these few paragraphs make you feel about your own reading practices?
4. What does the word ensorcellment mean? Why would Dirda use an unfamiliar word like this here?

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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