Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why reading matters

Photo by Richard Howard.

Back in 1991, I took a graduate course from Sven Birkerts, a charming and stubborn intellectual. Again and again, he came back to his misgivings over the flood of information that was coming our way and his fear that writing on computers (rather than by hand or with a typewriter) did not allow for deep thinking. Let's just say that his ruminations on the topic didn't do much for the self-confidence of all aspiring writers in the room.

The book that he was working on at the time was the praised and denounced The Gutenberg Elegies. Now, in this School Library Journal cover article, Birkerts argues, simply, for the act of reading. Instead of assuming that reading is good, he analyzes why it's a worthwhile practice.

While much has been written about the constant distractions of our digital world, Birkerts gets to the very root of why reading matters in this paragraph:

"Does it matter? What use is the imagination—as opposed to, say, the kind of mental agility, the quick-reflex thinking, that video games encourage? What is the argument we make for reading and daydreaming and cultivating inner resonances? I would say, to put it in the simplest terms, that imagination nourishes the primary self. As much as our skills and practical accomplishments bolster a sense of independent identity, imagination fills out the inner counterpart. It consolidates the “I” by making plausible the other. Imagination enables empathy, and imagination exercised through reading, through the work of inhabiting the language and sensibility of created characters—and of course the author herself—pushes continually against the solipsism fed to us by a marketing industry selling consumption as the index of our worth."

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