Recently, I was uncomfortably challenged when I read this quotation by Malcolm Cowley about writing: “Writers often speak of ‘saving their energy,’ as if each man were given a nickel’s worth of it, which he is at liberty to spend. To me, the mind of the poet resembles Fortunatus’s purse: The more spent, the more it supplies.” Cowley’s words challenged me for the very reason that I tend to hold a to a tacit, logically inexplicable view of my powers of expression (such as they may be) as a finite resource. I used to have a similar idea—albeit an unexamined one—about reading in that, when I began to especially love a book, I always began to read it exponentially more slowly. I suppose I felt that, the better and more worthwhile a book was, the longer I ought to savor it.
Certainly there’s an element of truth to such an idea. As Francis Bacon once said, “Some books are to be tasted, other to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” My problem, however, is in discerning which books are in those elite few who deserve “to be ready wholly.” It’s also helpful for me to remember that, even if I misjudge a book at first and don’t read it thoroughly enough, I can always re-read it more fully; the important thing is to begin.
Although I know it would behoove me to write more, I also realize that in order to write well, one must read voraciously. Such a recognition pricks my conscience a bit since I have not, of late, been as disciplined as I ought to have been about making time for vigorous, intensive reading outside of class assignments. And as one professor is oft-reminding me, college is not about pedagogy (a basic transfer of spoon-fed knowledge); but is rather andragogy, with professors in the role of inspiring guides. Thus, if our view of college is simply that of fulfilling the minimum requirements necessary to get an “A” in a class (though, granted, doing so is hardly an easy feat at Erskine), our vision for education becomes limited and stultifying. Admittedly, deep, intentional intellectual exploration requires generous amounts of time, and that is something hard to come by in college. Anything of value, though, is worth striving for.
I’m always amused by Benjamin Franklin’s quip that “[r]eading feeds the brain. It is evident that most minds are starving to death.” Franklin was, of course, speaking in a cultural and historical context in which American society was perhaps at the peak of its literacy—or at any rate, the peak of actual, meaningful literacy rather than the mere functional literacy so sadly common today. The fact that he thought that many minds were so starved in the nineteenth century begs the question of what he would say were he to visit our current image-centered culture. If you’re interested in thinking through the differences between a culture dominated by the printed word as opposed to one pervaded by the visual (often to the exclusion of much meaningful engagement with written language), I would highly recommend Neil Postman’s seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death. Lest I sound too polemical, I should perhaps mention that I enjoy a good movie as much as the next person. I think it is vital, though, that we use and appreciate technology as a tool rather than allowing it to dominate or control us due to a failure to examine its implications.
Of course, if one is taking a challenging load of classes and aims to make good grades, the dilemma over how to approach technology and entertainment is largely simplified. The reason for this simplification is that if one regularly spends large amounts of time on Facebook, watching TV, or playing video games, good grades will all too quickly become nothing but a figment of the imagination. Most college students I know say they just don’t have time to watch more than the occasional TV show on the weekend. And really, I don’t think we’re missing too much. So pick up a book (or a book on CD, for that matter), set to work, and think! You might fight it more refreshing than you’d expect.