Monday, April 20, 2015

The Religion of Literature

This weekend I've been in Cincinnati with Teach for America. On Thursday, I went with one of the current TFA teachers to visit his fourth grade class, observe his teaching technique, and teach a math lesson to his kids. During the lesson, I noticed that while many of the students sped through the math problems in their worksheets, they were uniformly stumped when they reached the word problems, either flinging their hands in the air for me to help them, or sitting back in their chairs, arms crossed, defeated. This was strange, I thought, since the word problems were just like the math problems before them—the only difference was that they used words instead of numbers.
          “Are the kids big readers?” I asked Nick later. Most of them seemed to like it, he said. They even read Harry Potter together as a class. “But to be honest,” he said, “I hate reading. I can’t remember the last time I read a book for myself.”
          This didn’t faze me; I’ve heard the same thing from many people in my generation, and from many in the generation before mine. Movies and television are more popular in our day, and I don’t condemn anyone for not enjoying literature, because that would be like if someone condemned me for not liking peanut butter. Moreover, reading is not easy. It demands energy; you have to sit still, usually without distraction, and put millions of letters into your eyes, and somehow get your brain to process them into words, and then into an aesthetic experience. Really good reading requires reading practice—every day—and if you don’t like the experience, it can be hard to find the motivation to have that practice. Word problems are harder than number problems if you have never read a book.

          Reading is hard, yes, and reading well is harder. Millions of Americans are literate, and I would bet that a smaller number of millions honestly read for fun. They read books that give them stories they want, with the excitement that they want, in language that they expect. But if you want to read for wisdom—the truth of the ages passed down by the conscious—that requires work. And more than work, it requires humility. You have to put yourself aside; you have to ignore your own thoughts and feelings and seriously consider the ideas of another. You have to have discipline, you have to have reverence, you have to have meditation, you have to have solitude.

          Such is the religion of literature. And such is so much religion—Hinduism, Christianity, Mormonism, Judaism. This is the religion of selflessness: put yourself last. Do difficult things. Ponder wisdom continually. Learn to love others.

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