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Once More on the Future of Reading

We have no shortage of predictions about “the future of reading,” as Mark Kingwell points out here. “Those predictions are either wildly optimistic or comprehensively gloomy, depending on your interests, age, mortgage payments and health plan.”

But Kingwell offers a much more thoughtful and subtle and provocative take on these matters than I am used to seeing. For instance:

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that exposure to literature reliably expands your moral imagination. Nor do the liberal arts make you a better citizen — a common variant on the basic claim. Nothing is more depressing to those of us who believe in the value of robust critical thought and enhanced ethical imagination than to realize that some students can pass through years of forced ingestion of challenging texts without experiencing a glimmer of either.

You will want to reply that these students haven’t really been reading the books. But that just begs the question by presupposing the very thing we need to demonstrate, namely the salutary effects of reading. Better to acknowledge that there are failures on all sides here.

And seeing that is what keeps me and my dedicated colleagues coming back to the classroom with hope every September, looking to offer the things that students can’t get by other means, no matter how fast their ISP connections. Even the failures do not, by themselves, diminish the value of liberal arts education generally. But let us admit that such education does not guarantee good citizens. Also, from the other side, let us acknowledge that there are many exemplary citizens who have not attended a single literature class or read a word of Plato.

The very same fallacies of false necessity afflict the empathy argument. Reading Sense and Sensibility may give you a better appreciation of the joys and sorrows of love, but it need not. And even if it does, that appreciation may track only very unevenly or partially into your own dealings with others. You don’t have to be a sociopath to find that prolonged exposure to the minds of fictional others, in the form of the modern novel, leaves you with just about the same level of regard as before.

Do please read the whole thing. There is much food for thought in it.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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