I often hear others say (and sometimes think, myself) that students are far too busy to bother with reading, particularly deep reading, the sort of reading we do for the pleasure of the experience, or for deeply personal and focused analysis, for no other reason but to know — or for inspiration.
Indeed, this is precisely the problem because today’s readers are on a deadline. The above-mentioned impulses to read are overridden by the current cultural imperative to be “successful” at an occupation or trade that students have presumably come to university to train for. We professors recoil in shock and horror at the thought our students would be at university for anything other than learning for learning’s sake, but the principle of occupational preparation bears out in many, if not most, of the kinds of comments I often see and hear from students.
I think one of our primary goals, as humanities professionals, is to show our pupils that a college or university education is far more significant than training for a specific profession, that it is the beginning of a new life, and that reading, particularly novels, is the perfect activity to accomplish this task. But we also have to recognize that the novel (like most of our students and the cultural milieu we live in) is also in a state of change. It is largely technological, but also conceptual, right down to the question of what it means to be.
One of my own biggest challenges has been to get students to slow down, to read with deliberate interest, and not to suck on “relevant facts” useful for test-taking, but rather to see the words on the printed page, to feel their weight, to know the voices and persons speaking the text.
Kyle Beachy in his essay “The Extent of Our Decline,” writes, tongue in cheek, “Who today reads a novel to learn when Wikipedia offers the shorter, more condensed version?”
The cynical (or mischievous) part of me wishes to say “Right on, Brother! Speak it!” But I know what is really at stake here is not the burden of teaching resistant or under-appreciative students to read books for the sake of collecting the secret knowledge they contain. The real secret, the one many life-long readers learn as children, is that we do not read novels to learn. Rather, we read novels to live a fuller life.
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Novels connect us to people. The words we read in a novel are the psychic air that breathes emotional bonds between reader and the world. I have read novels that made me feel more whole, more of a complete person, upon reading the final sentence, as if I were only a partial person before attempting its pages.
But I contend that we must not mistake the pages of a book for the novel. The physical book is a fine thing, and certainly in no danger of disappearing any time soon, but the digital book, the novel in electronic form, abstracts us no more away from the story, its characters, and the passion of the narrative than the physical book object. It is simply another medium, and one with great potential that is being realized as it is developed by really interesting writer-experimentalists.
Margaret Atwood talks about how she was reprimanded by readers of one of her articles for suggesting that the Internet was good at promoting literacy. I discovered this article after reading a Twitter post from someone I follow:
“I got into trouble a while ago for saying that I thought the internet led to increased literacy –…” tmblr.co/ZA1xbyOt4CZD
— Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) July 7, 2012
I then went to the source. Indeed, there is a palpable reverence for the physical book form, particularly when we talk about fiction and novels. Perhaps this strong emotional feeling many of us have (myself included) for the book, and for teaching the book in its traditional form, is related to the history of the codex, which was the preferred medium for inscribing the Bible during the rise of Christianity between the 3rd and 6th centuries. Maybe, we descendents of the Judeo-Christian tradition unconsciously associate a certain religiosity or piety to the form. I think it has much to do with my generation having grown up with so many beautiful memories and emotional relationships nested in the folds of those old tomes sitting on our bookshelves. Old friends *live* in those books.
Atwood is right, I believe. We need to look to new media, and new media platforms like the Internet, for vibrant, new ways to supplement where we read, write, and especially teach to our students.
Beachy says in his essay, “If only Horace were here to clarify for us the complicated relationship between a novel and its pages. Clearly, the novel is built around the mechanics of the book. But to conflate the two is a mistake both easy and terrible” (61).
To insist on the book without investigating the possibilities for joy and connection through other forms will, I believe, ultimately lead to the stagnation of the written word, particularly the form of the novel.
Some alarmist literature would have us believe that the novel is in an existential crisis, and has been for over a decade. This is bunk. The novel is alive and well, and is ever more valuable as a transformational experience. Though it is currently going through its own transformation, and experiencing changes much the same way many of our student are. There is a part of me that thinks that the novel is only just growing out of its two-hundred year adolescence to becoming a more mature, if not experimental, young adult.
I always marvel at how deeply students read off of their mobile devices, especially their smartphones. I’ve watched students on campus bump into passers-by and walk into dangerous traffic without a thought to what they were doing, they were so engaged with the text on the screen. And here we have an opportunity to consider how we might leverage a forward-looking approach to teaching new forms of literature, especially the novel, to our students who are, themselves, being formed by the experience of a college education.
Cedrick May is an Associate Professor of Literature at UTA and a lover of coffee, Ebooks, Borges, and Regular Expressions.