Some time around 1908, the president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot, accepted a unique challenge. “Eliot had stated in speeches that the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf,” reports Wikipedia. “The publisher P. F. Collier and Son saw an opportunity and challenged Eliot to make good on this statement by selecting an appropriate collection of works, and the Harvard Classics was the result.”
A similar body of fiction work soon followed. “They take you out of the rut of life in the town you live in and make you a citizen of the world,” said Dr. Eliot.
Reading the Harvard classics is a humbling experience. Some are thrilling, some are boring, but to dip into these tomes is to dip into some of the greatest minds that ever existed. The power of the written word has transcended centuries and can still move people today.
Now keep this in mind as I recap some complaints from our daughters this week. They’re reluctantly getting ready to go see the second installment of “The Hobbit,” which recently opened in theaters. I say reluctantly because the girls didn’t care for the first installment of the movie. It departed too radically from the book, and the kids are enormous fans of the original Tolkien works.
“It’s not so bad for us,” they said. “But there are so many kids who have never read Tolkien and won’t know how much better the books are over the movies. They’ll think the movies are accurate when they’re not. The books are ten times better.”
“Face it,” my husband said. “You may be the last literate generation.”
As fanatical book-lovers, this concept saddened us. Too many people don’t read any more. They watch. They text. They chat. They hear. But they don’t read for pleasure. I find that sad.
A lot of young people would argue that a lack of reading isn’t important. Society has moved on. There are far more exciting and innovative ways to communicate than dusty old books. So what’s the big deal?
It’s a big deal because people are becoming more and more illiterate. They communicate in chat-speak or text-speak, but are incapable of handling polysyllabic words or anything that can’t be abbreviated with a numerical substitute. Knw w@ I mean?
Why is literacy important? Aside from the wonderful imaginative world anyone can enter in a moment, aside from the knowledge gained or the ideas presented, literacy is still key to functioning in our modern world. Imagine what my editor would say if I submitted all my columns in “chat speak.” Imagine how college professors feel about students who can’t distinguish between their, there and they’re, between two, to and too, between you’re and your. Without an extensive background of reading homophones in context, many people have great difficulty deciding which word is correct.
While it’s true that such ignorance compromises one’s credibility any time writing is required, the implications of this lack of literacy go much deeper. Let’s face it, very few writers are born of people who aren’t avid readers as well. The more reading declines, the more writing declines. Comprehension declines. Analysis declines. Articulation declines. Questioning declines. We become less able to distinguish between truth and propaganda. We become passive, stupid, biddable serfs to the intelligentsia.
While this might seem like a stretch of the imagination – that a dearth of reading can lead to serfdom – consider that throughout history (a sound knowledge of which can only be acquired through reading), enslaved people were discouraged from literacy. Literate people can think, exchange ideas and question their circumstances. The longer the elites can keep the people illiterate, the longer their reign of power can be extended.
There is a fascinating story allegedly told by Davy Crockett about how he was brought to task by a humble farmer named Horatio Bunce. Mr. Bunce scolded Rep. Crockett about his unconstitutional vote in appropriating government funds for hardship relief of some people whose homes had burned down. “I have heard many speeches in Congress, but what you have said here at your plow has got more hard, sound sense in it than all the fine speeches I have ever heard,” Davy Crockett told Mr. Bunce. (Mr. Crockett also concluded this story by reporting, “Money with them [politicians] is nothing but trash when it is to come out of the people. But it is the one great thing for which most of them are striving, and many of them sacrifice honor, integrity and justice to obtain it.” – thus proving that some things never change.)
So here we have a literate, knowledgeable farmer who handed Mr. Crockett his head. Due to Mr. Bunce’s knowledge of the Constitution and its greater implications, he arguably changed the course of history by giving Davy Crockett a deeper and more precise understanding of the founding documents he was elected to support.
In 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” sold 120,000 copies in a population of approximately 2.5 million, making it a runaway best-seller and greatly influencing popular opinion regarding the American Revolution. Despite its sophisticated writing style (particularly when viewed by modern standards), people read and comprehended it, then went on to win their freedom.
This is why literacy is critical. Without a literate populace, monarchs and politicians can run amok and do whatever they please.
Look, we have a big enough problem as it is with endless millions of low-information sheeple who gullibly swallow whatever platitudes our politicians and media tell us (“If you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance – period!”) – do we really need to complete America’s road to serfdom by voluntarily dumbing ourselves down?
Reading (and its accompanying requirement, comprehension) takes practice, just like any other skill. Only by immersing one’s self in literature (good, bad, indifferent … it all contributes) does literacy begin to impact our lives.
Our girls have been raised in a home with over 5,000 books. By contrast, Laura Ingalls Wilder was raised in a home with only a handful. But those books were read and valued; and we all know how Laura’s literacy impacted our culture. It’s not the quantity, it’s the value books are given.
If we continue abandoning books in favor of “smart” phones and other electronic thinkers, we’ll become as hopeless and illiterate as serfs and slaves.
So please, before you go see “The Hobbit,” sit down and read the book. It’s a wonderful story.