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Reading Immersion: The Antidote to Soul-Crushing Education

In my last post, What Makes a Book Life-Changing, I wrote about how seniors at St. John’s choose to write senior essays on books that are likely to change their lives. Finding this kind of inspiration in books seems to be less and less frequent among the pre-college crowd. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, David Denby noted the trend away from reading:

Work by the Pew Research Center and other outfits have confirmed the testimony of teachers and parents and the evidence of one’s eyes. Few late teen-agers are reading many books. A recent summary of studies cited by Common Sense Media indicates that American teen-agers are less likely to read “for fun” at seventeen than at thirteen. The category of reading “for fun” is itself a little depressing, since it divides reading into duty (for school) and gratification (sitting on a beach towel), as if the two were necessarily opposed. My own observation, after spending a lot of time talking to teen-agers in recent years: reading anything serious has become a chore, like doing the laundry or prepping a meal for a kid brother. Or, if it’s not a chore, it’s just an activity, like swimming or shopping, an activity like any other. It’s not something that runs through the rest of their lives. In sum, reading has lost its privileged status; few kids are ashamed that they’re not doing it much. The notion that you should always have a book going—that notion, which all real readers share, doesn’t flourish in many kids. Often, they look at you blankly when you ask them what they are reading on their own.

Somehow, St. John’s students have bucked this trend before they get here. Our students would not choose to come to St. John’s unless they already loved books and greatly enjoyed reading. When they arrive, they discover a community whose members delight in the joys of reading just as much as they do.

There are other schools and places where the joy of reading can be shared, but no place quite like St. John’s where reading is so constantly at the heart of daily life. Visitors to the campus are often astonished at the pervasiveness and intensity of our conversation about the books—so much so that it continues in and out of class, all day long and into the night. Near total immersion in reading and discussing what we read—that is how we practice and share the joy of reading with one another in our community of learning.

Students come to St. John’s ready to dive in. And the time they spend here educates them about the profound learning that immersion in great books can engender. But how did they buck the trend? What makes them search out life-changing experiences in books, when so many of their generation wouldn’t pick up a book if you paid them to read?

Denby has some thoughts about why those who know the life-changing power of reading can’t seem to communicate it to young people:

Lifetime readers know that reading literature can be transformative, but they can’t prove it. If they tried, they would have to buck the metric prejudice, the American notion that assertions unsupported with statistics are virtually meaningless. What they know about literature and its effects is literally and spiritually immeasurable. They would have to buck common marketplace wisdom, too: in an economy demanding “skill sets”—defined narrowly as technical and business skills—that deep-reading stuff won’t get you anywhere.

And he muses about raising children to buck the trend:

How is a taste for such reading created in the first place? Infants held in their parents’ arms, told stories, and read to will not remember the images or the words, but they will likely remember the warmth and comfort associated with books and conversation, especially when the experience is repeated hundreds of times. The luckiest of the children fall out of parents’ arms into preschool. In the good ones, books are read aloud, valued, expounded, held up for kids to enjoy.

Perhaps this is the way that lovers of reading are brought up. It certainly couldn’t hurt for parents to model the joy of reading for their children, or for teachers to try to keep that joy alive in the little ones who already have it while also trying to spark it in those who don’t yet have it. One thing is clear: very few youngsters will develop a love for something that no one around them loves.

That so many may be growing up without this love of reading is terribly sad, both for them individually—since one of the most reliable paths to self-development will be blocked to them —and for us collectively—since society will be deprived of the benefits that might have accrued to it from their self-development.

The celebrated Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa described the transformative power of literature in this way:

Thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute—the foundation of the human condition—and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.

This is true not only of works of fiction, but also of any books—be they scientific, religious, poetic, historical, economic, or political—that are so deep that they cannot be grasped without plunging into them headlong.

St. John’s will always be here to help students find the books that can change their lives.