Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The media is the message and the texts are on television and the Internet is awash in words, but fewer than half of everybody over 18 are actually reading “literature.” The sound byte has replaced poetry, punditry has replaced the novel and everything is a short story. Very short.

The invention of the printing press offered great writing to anybody who wanted to read it, and Johann Gutenberg’s famously moveable type elevated the aspirations for all men and women, regardless of class and status, to learn to read the great books from Homer to Hemingway. High tech has rewired appetites to disdain or ignore the imaginative.

In a depressing new report called “Reading at Risk,” the National Endowment for the Arts offers proof, as if we needed it, that we are no longer a nation that reads fiction, poetry and drama for pleasure. We’ll pay a very high price for this.

The most spectacular decline is among young men and women. These are the students who have been all but drowned in “relevance,” political correctness and multiculturalism, beginning in the lower grades. Teachers pander to their personal “needs” and “values” rather than inspiring them to achievement and excellence. It hasn’t worked. In 1982, nearly 60 percent of Americans between 18 and 24 read literature. That figure has dropped to 40 percent. The surveyors did not examine the category of fine nonfiction writing.

While there are many reasons why we set out to teach our young to disdain what Matthew Arnold described as the best that’s been thought and taught in the world, the fault lines of seismic change are rumbling beneath a culture pushed by politics. We’ve watched while standards and criteria for appraising literary quality are not so gradually eroded.

Once upon a time our political leaders were well-read and enjoyed a common heritage. This was evident in the written words of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. The letters written home by Civil War soldiers, many of whom had not finished grade school, reflected a knowledge of the language of the Bible, of the classics, sometimes the Greeks, even of Shakespeare. In our own time, colleges required and produced well-rounded undergraduates. The self-taught man was encouraged, too. Harry Truman barely finished high school, but he was among our most widely read presidents.

I taught an English literature course at Catholic University in Washington in the late ‘60s, and all sophomores, no matter their major, were required to take this sweeping survey course that began with Chaucer and ended with T.S. Eliot. They learned to understand, appreciate and criticize the exuberance of the language describing the pilgrims of the Middle Ages marching to Canterbury Cathedral in the month of April, and to compare it to Eliot’s modern wasteland where “April is the cruelest month.” They learned how language reflects sensibility. More importantly, they discovered the pleasure derived from listening to rhythm and rhyme (and no rhyme) as the poet expresses his personal vision in just the appropriate word, just the right phrase to fuse sound and meaning.

But now, at some of our finest (or at least the most expensive) universities, freshmen and sophomores can substitute political criticism in literature for literary criticism in literature. Feminists implore women to study Shakespeare’s plays, but only as a reflection of the status of women. Blacks lobby against “Huckleberry Finn,” perhaps the greatest American novel, because Mark Twain wrote of “Nigger Jim,” a noble and sympathetic character, in the rich and colloquial language of the time.

The metaphysical poets have always required a close reading of the words to reveal the poet’s richness of imagination — John Donne describes the loving separation of husband and wife as “gold to airy thinness beat,” suggesting the beauty of gold when pounded paper thin — but such is lost now because teachers usually don’t bother to teach it.

Literature opens the mind to gorgeous metaphors and comparisons, creating new possibilities of perception. Great novels require the reader to break the bonds of time and the confining prejudices of place. This is heresy in our time when literature is “deconstructed” to the point that the author’s work is left in little pieces. I once told my engineering students that they could learn how to build a house, a bridge, a road without reading the poetry of Walt Whitman, but if they read him they might look differently at brick and mortar.

Literature doesn’t teach “how,” but reading forces reflection on “why.” Says Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts and a poet himself: “As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active and independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.” How true.

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