Dumfounded Silence

Yesterday was depressing. In my morning class I had them watching a film version of Chekov's Uncle Vanya. We've been studying realism and naturalism as cultural movements in the late 19th and early 20th century. Now I realize that Chekov is not everyone's cup of tea. But you have to give it a shot, right? Attempt to understand what it's all about. But not the kid sitting in the second row. The minute the film begins he sinks his head onto the desk, face first, literally stares into the desktop for the next forty minutes.

I might as well have been pulling his fingernails off one by one. He sees my class as a form of ritualized annoyance, and if he can just take it long enough, he'll pass. Then, in my afternoon seminar, we were discussing a book by the classical scholar Martha Nussbaum. Her thesis was that literature has a special capacity to awaken our empathetic imagination. It can--better than any other medium--emotionally arouse a sense of compassion in us for people unlike ourselves. We discussed tragic drama, and I asked them to name the books that have been meaningful, life-changing, the characters who made them feel something, care.

About two-thirds of the seminar said that they have never read anything that really moved them in the way I described. About half said they had never read any novel outside of the stuff they had been assigned in school. I said, "What about Charlotte's Web when you were a kid? Did you read that?" A few nodded. One woman smiled.

"I balled my eyes out when Charlotte died. That's not even really a kids book. The first line is 'Where's poppa goin' with that axe?' It's about life, about friendship, about death, and change. Can't you remember when a story like that--a good, well told story--was what you wanted more than anything?"

Silence.

"I think movies are better," comes a timid voice.

"Well," I responded, "they can be powerful, but movies are not the same thing, are they? A book invites you to create the characters in your mind, hear their voices. Your act of reading is intimately your own, not some dictatorial whim of an editor or a director. Try reading a book after having seen the movie. How hard is it to get that actor's face out of your mind? And you hate that. You feel cheated somehow. You want that power to create back. Movies are a fascist art form. They aren't democratic. Plus, there are only a few hundred movies created a year. There's a universe of books, which means there are infinitely more possible experiences. For heaven's sake, no one doodles on a DVD, makes notes, spills lunch, leaves bloodstains. The books in your room are the outward expression of your intellectual growth and change, granular rings of thought. There's just no comparison!"

Silence.

After several moments, a students pipes up: "Reading takes too much time."

"What, and playing on your X-box doesn't?"

"Yeah, but that's fun."

Me: Dumbfounded silence.

Why go on? Why did I ever become an educator? I have wasted my life, which, come to think of it, is pretty much the point of Uncle Vanya.

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