Monday, September 15, 2014

Is Reading So, Like, Nineteenth Century?

Don Quixote in the Library, Adolf_Schrödter, 1834, via Wikimedia Commons
Every September we go back to school and every September I go over the idea that to be successful in your philosophy class you have to read some difficult texts and every September the students get a little glazy-eyed and there are are questions having to do with the point of reading for class.

And every September I try to explain, in a brilliant impersonation of a movie-land Boring Professor, why being able to read things for yourself really matters in terms of forming your own opinion and not just being spoon-fed ideas from people who are actually trying to talk you into something. Every September I try to talk about how if you're not already skilled at reading difficult things, part of the point is to help you read difficult things. Every September, yada yada yada.

Every September I get vaguely irritated thinking about the range of forces that work together to make students think that the point of education is "efficient knowledge transfer" -- a range that weirdly includes sci-fi and pop culture but also certain educational administrative entities and ignorant news-y education pundits and know-it-alls.

Every September I ponder the obvious implicit question: if that's what knowledge is, what the hell are we doing reading anything at all? Hey, Prof, the 1850s called -- they want their learning methods back.

Every September I reflect on the fact that even if university classes are sometimes about efficient knowledge transfers, humanities courses are really about something else, and about how even if that something else is hard to pin down, at least it has something to do with learning how to think for yourself -- something that, contrary to widespread opinion, I'd like to affirm is actually very difficult, and something that seems to me to have something to do specifically with encountering words.

Every September, this prompts me to start thinking about what the deal is. Hey reading, you think you're so great. What makes you so special?

Every September, I think about how exchanging ideas works pretty well when you're using words -- and how once you're using words anyway, it's hard to see the point of presenting them in some ridiculous ephemeral form like a video when you can just, you know, write and read the words themselves instead.

Every September I think about the novels I've read and how I like to use them as examples in class and how this is a problem that just gets worse and worse. Every September I mention examples like "Orwell's book, 1984" and every September the students are, like, "What about that movie -- "The Dark Knight"? and I'm like "Sorry, I'm old and steeped in a culture of words. I'm sure I haven't seen it. Why don't you tell us what happens?

Every September I think about my commitment to the uncomfortable truth that encountering the Human Condition through movies is not like encountering the Human Condition through words -- which is obviously not to say Movies = Bad and Books = Good or anything like that.

And every September I think about the way that the drama of film is just not the same as the drama of word; I'm reminded yet again about how film has this tendency to glamorize, and I encounter the uncomfortable fact about myself that cruelty and violence, presented in the right way, are things I can enjoy watching, even when the same thing, described in words, would horrify.

Then every September when I think about these things I'm reminded of the book and the movie Gamorrah -- which if you don't know is an incredible non-fiction book about organized crime in Italy written by a young guy who sort of got to know people and then had to go into hiding -- and I remember how when I first saw the movie I was, yes, shocked at what it depicted but also, yes, kind of enthralled with the visual beauty of it, by the beauty of the crumbling slums, shot somehow in the sun to make them look like artwork, by the beauty of the kids, with their black hair and expressive faces, and even, yes, by the beauty of the scene in which some gangsters are all in a salon getting their nails done and they all get shot.

Every September I remember, with a shudder, how when I read the book I felt so chastened, by the way the same events described in words brought home the reality of poverty and violence, brought home the horror of having to choose between killing people for the mob and not having enough to eat or worse, brought home how an Italian slum where life is cheap is a place no one wants to be, brought home how sunlight and whatever have nothing to do with it.

And every September, this circles me back to the importance of reading, and I feel a burst of unapologetic fervor about it: yes, there's going to be reading; no, there's no shortcut, no, we're not going to watch a video.

And if that means I'm stuck in the nineteenth century - well, whatever. There are worse things to be.

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