Tempus fugit, lectio fugit

Each spring I formulate a list of things I want to read before fall term comes around in late August.  And every late August I wonder where the time went.  What could I possibly have been thinking with my ambitious reading project?

A few summers ago I decided to set aside time each day to read all 36 Shakespeare plays in the traditional chronology. I never got past Titus Andronicus (sixth on the list according to the Riverside Anthology).   This is to say nothing of my other abandoned projects: reading the King James Bible front to back (never got beyond Second Chronicles); reading Augustine's City of God (don't ask).

So you would  think I would know better than to try this again. Nevertheless this summer I've set myself the goal of reading Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, a novel I've picked up and abandoned at least three other times. So why Proust and why now?  

It's a good question and the only answer I can offer is that I want to re-awaken some long-lost reading muscles. I want the experience of being deeply immersed in a big, demanding book that has the power to create a parallel life that runs alongside my own. For this you need a big book and a big author: a Tolstoy, a Joyce or--I suspect--a Proust.

Lately, too, I've been worried about my students.  Most of them have never had the wonderful, intimate, subversive feeling of weaving their days in and out of long novels. D
aily life takes on a magical quality when you're living with a big book over an extended period. There's the life you are leading and the life you are reading.  Time somehow seems larger, moments more incised. It's almost like when you were a kid and your summers loomed rather than zoomed.

Maryanne Wolf, a professor of Child Development, has written eloquently about how reading functionally rewires the neuronal circuits of the brain. Indeed, unlike speech--something we appear to be designed for by evolutionary biology--reading is a developmental add-on to the mind's architecture.  It requires the formation of unique cognitive structuring and even physiologically alters those who master the skill. Unfortunately these alterations are not passed on like our genes. Acquiring a reading brain necessitates sustained and frequent practice for each new generation, something that just isn't happening for many of my students.

Of course griping about students who don't read is perhaps the hoariest of academic complaints, one easy to dismiss by sniffing that "it has been ever thus." Complain about the caliber of your students and someone inevitably trots out a quote by Plato or Socrates on the indolence of the young (although the particular quote most often cited is a misattribution and only around 100 years old). 

But let's suppose that Maryanne Wolf is right and the kind of reading we do actually shapes our brain circuitry.  If this is so, then it's only reasonable to conclude that a generation that has skimmed electronic pages and text messages will not have the requisite wiring or patience for deep, immersive reading.  More than one student this past semester approached me after class to say that he or she was really struggling with the readings, most of which were not even particularly long or difficult texts.  

In each of these instances, too, there was an odd, almost desperate quality in their voices.  It was as if they felt there was something wrong with them. They liked me and liked the course. They wanted to do well and really tried to read.  They just couldn't do it.  

I am beginning to suspect they're right.  And it troubles me.


T.J. Brayshaw said…
I wonder, though, if when they were trying to read they actually turned the phones off. I wonder more whether they lack the ability to just "turn off" now and then, rather than lack the ability to focus IF they do, in fact, turn off.
Professor Quest said…
I usually try to steer clear of the "students are broken" hypothesis. Even so, I'm increasingly worried that our students aren't developing even the basic reading chops necessary to succeed. I actually heard Maryanne Wolf on the radio a few weeks ago and she argued this wasn't just the case with young people. Even seasoned readers are being affected by the changed mode of reading we do in the digital age. That's why Proust will be in the car this summer next to my fly box and 3-wt.

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