I’m in the middle of Alan Jacobs’ recent-ish book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. As the title suggests, his interest is in how the delight of a serious reading life can be kindled and maintained – he sets himself against the more puritanical models of reading found in people like Mortimer Adler and Harold Bloom. In particular, this passage struck me:
But, all things considered, I believe that most people read quickly because they want not to read but to have read. But why do they want to have read? Because, I think, they conceive of reading simply as a me[ans of uploading information to their brains.
Now, the uploading model of reading is a generally valid one in many cases. That’s how to read a cookbook or a software manual – though even in those we still have to translate what we have uploaded into meaningful and appropriate action. And while I and my fellow teachers might not be happy about it, that’s how many students will read literature and philosophy. We would love it if this young woman staring at Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were moved to rethink her concept of the Good, or if that young fellow had his whole scale of values altered by his encounter with To the Lighthouse, but we would be foolish to expect anything of the kind to happen. After all, if we have assigned those books, we are probably testing our students’ understanding of them in some way, and therefore by our actions are virtually demanding that students read instrumentally, that is, for some good completely external to the pleasures and values of reading itself: in other words, we are telling them to read for a grade. And any student who has a grade in the forefront, or perhaps even in the background, of his or her mind is likely to read in that uploading style, so the necessary data will be available when it is needed. (The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Oxford University Press. 2011.Pgs. 72-73)
When I think of it, most of the books that affected me the most during my undergraduate were not books that showed up on my syllabi. They were things I was reading instead of doing what I was supposed to do, or were otherwise summer reading. For example, I started reading Kierkegaard on a whim (a phenomenon central to Jacobs’ book), and he hit me harder than just about anything else during my freshman year. In my sophomore year I actually studied him, but the experience was much more detached: these weren’t ideas directly challenging me. Instead they were ideas to be understood and mastered.
A good amount of the value of a liberal education is found in how much it winds up becoming the unintended midwife of these sorts of encounters.