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Bookends

How serious is our society’s literacy problem? Unless we commit to being serious readers of a shared canon, we might as well stop reading altogether.

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Earlier this week, New York City’s department of education released the results of a new study about literacy. Surveying 1,000 students at 20 public schools, the study found that those trained under a program called Core Knowledge—which focuses on nonfiction texts and revolves around a core of common learning—did considerably better than those who adhered to other methods of reading comprehension.

At first glance, the result should come as no surprise. It seems obvious that kids read better when they read in context—reading Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” say, after learning all about the shift from the Enlightenment to Romanticism—and that nurturing an intellectual environment in which informed students discuss the intricacies of shared knowledge is a better way of producing intelligent human beings than, say, merely encouraging kids to read out loud. But the survey made news in part because its conclusions are no longer considered obvious to us at all. In school and long after, we as a society have rejected the thick weave of common culture for the gossamer of individual opinions.

It has made us a culture of poor readers, middling writers, and unfortunate human beings. There is only way out of this quagmire, and it’s by going further in.

Consider the following paragraph, in which two characters, written by a famous English author, are chatting.

“The stars, sir,” says one of them.

“Stars?” asks the other.

“Yes, sir.”

“What about them?”

“I was merely directing your attention to them, sir. Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.”

If it sounds Shakespearean, it’s because it is; the whole business of heaven and gold is lifted from Lorenzo’s speech to Jessica in the final act of The Merchant of Venice. But the book quoted from isn’t the bard’s; it’s P.G. Wodehouse’s Joy in the Morning, and the conversation takes places between the bumbling Bertie Wooster and his cunning valet Jeeves. In case you’re wondering what kind of book it is, let me just say that two of the main characters are named Boko Fittleworth and Stilton Cheesewright, and that the plot comes to its crescendo in a roaring scene involving a clandestine meeting at a potting shed. In other words, it’s popular stuff. But Wodehouse—who wrote for Broadway and Hollywood, sold millions of books and had his finger on the pulse of public preference—felt free to pepper his blockbuster comic novel with ample references to all things highbrow—the title itself is borrowed from Psalms 30:5—knowing full well that his readers, while not the literary sort, would still get them, marvel at Jeeves’ erudition, and laugh when Bertie, a few pages later, shows his ignorance by attributing the bit about the floor of heaven to Jeeves.

That was 1946. Today, it’s safe to assume that very few authors, even if they had at their disposal Wodehouse’s imperial command of Shakespeare, would feel inclined to quote the bard in such a nuanced and playful way. They’d be right, of course: Mention patines of bright gold to today’s reading public, and they’re more likely to attribute the sentiment to a Kardashian than to Shakespeare.

The fault is in ourselves. For starters, we stupidly discarded the tradition of the Great Books program, selling that fantastic cultural birthright for the mess of pottage that is identity politics, and finding our fathers—from Plato to Pope—wanting, not for the content of their character but for the color of their skin and the nature of their genitalia. But our blunders extend from the institutional to the personal: Lacking the solid foundation that only real education can bestow, we choose at random, read at leisure, lack context, and, like those unfortunate many in New York’s schools who were not exposed to the Core Knowledge program, we fail to understand. What we need, then, is reform.

Here’s a start: If you consider reading simply a pastime, stop reading. Watch movies: They are less demanding on your schedule, tend to have considerably more nudity, and are generally easier to bring up in conversation. Let the faculties of your mind previously dedicated to parsing text commit themselves instead to better, more needful uses, like mastering Angry Birds. Let reading go gently into the good night and take its place alongside archery and woodcarving in the pantheon of pastimes past, previously popular and currently the domain of the few and the carefully trained.

But if you’re serious about reading—or, for that matter, about your education—see to it attentively. Revisit Homer and read your way through human history. Don’t stop until you hit Kafka. Or, better yet, don’t stop until you see the entire vista of our culture spread before you and feel yourself every bit a part of it.

The People of the Book, of course, realized this about books a very long time ago. At the core of our being is a shared text, which we spend eternity debating. Our discussions, our disputes, our creative feats—all stem from it. Take away our common canon and we’re left with that most debased and meaningless of commodities: opinions. In some strange way, that old chestnut about two Jews having three opinions gets it all wrong. What Jews excel in aren’t opinions—the carefree and baseless expression of personal sentiment—but responsa, attempts to make sense of life that are rooted in a distinct tradition and a strong commitment to exploring and understanding its intricacies.

But ours, alas, is not a very Jewish time. Opinions are king. Emotions trump education. This goes for writers as well as readers; just note the ascent of the memoir. Of course, the genre of self-ascription as such should not be altogether dismissed. If one, say, happens to be the Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, and had fought the Second Boer War, and had sponsored the campaign in Gallipoli, and had rescued the world from the jaws of tyranny, and had written the definitive history of the English-speaking peoples, and had won the Nobel Prize in literature for his efforts, one should most definitely sit down to write a memoir. Heck, make that two. But if one’s designs on posterity involve writing an inane and intermittently amusing account of traveling somewhere banal and meeting some, like, really crazy people, one ought to take a cue from Sir Winston and first live a life truly worth writing about. Or, at the very least, one should follow Montaigne’s example, constantly ask “What do I know?” and produce a personal reflection worthy of the ages. Otherwise, we’d be well-served if these writers, like their readers, abandoned the literary pursuit to those willing to take it seriously, and busied themselves instead with the less rigorous and more remunerative undertakings of popular entertainment.

Much of what I had just written, I imagine, might send many readers into fits of modern indignation. Why, after all, shouldn’t people read whatever they want for their own pleasure? And why shouldn’t writers feel free to share their points of view? The blunt answer is that points of view do not matter in the least. Points of view are to knowledge what dessert is to vegetables: You earn one only by first consuming the other.

It’s time to recommit to the core. You could begin here, here, here, here, or anywhere else you’d like. But begin: To this we owe our past, and on this we stake our future.

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Tell me about it. In 8th Grade, my daughter read something called “Killing Mr. Griffin,” that seems to be more or less about the dangers of giving in to peer pressure, as a replacement for (drum roll please,) “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Apparently, the other book was more relatable.

Steph F. says:

I don’t see an either/or proposition here, where you either read the (implicitly timeless) classics or you read (implicitly ephemeral) contemporary works. Having read both Killing Mr. Griffin (Lois Duncan is an accomplished YA writer who crafts very thought-provoking material; I enjoyed her books a lot when I was a kid) and To Kill a Mockingbird, I could see how the two works could speak to each other in useful and interesting ways. That’s what I see behind Liel’s “people of the book” analogy: that past and present should be in conversation with each other. Torah is a living text because we continue to turn it and turn it, finding everything in it. If we did not apply our own selves and circumstances to the reading of it, it would not have the power that it has. Liel, ever the gadfly, emphasizes our current culture’s banality, but I would argue that if we completely abandon present challenges and expressions for past accomplishments, we would wind up just as stuck and lost as those who don’t seek to understand worlds and times outside their own.

Well done Liel. As a novelist who has spent a lifetime reading what you call the “core” I think you hit the nail on the head. Special commendations are in order for an absolutely wonderful essay that expresses so eloquently what is wrong with our culture. I have been trying to send that message for many years, but you have really encapsulated in one short essay what I have been trying to express for decades. Best Warren Adler

MethanP says:

Your comments are on target. Possibly our electronic lives impact on literacy. Illiterate societies are known for prodigeous memories. I’m reminded of a book by Robert Heinline where a group of teenagers are stranded on another world. As the power on there “kindles” fail, communication begins to fail. The hero of the hour is the one who realizes that they can use a stick to draw words in the dirt. In their advanced society know one can write, you see. You just type in the letters or speak them in.
My friends Emails confirm, to me at least, that the tech is at least part of the problem. Why spell, capitalize or punctuate. They don’t even use spell check.

Sorry, Steph. I understand what you mean about the two works speaking to each other, but I have to disagree. There’s an either/or because kids read 5 books a year in their English classes. If there has to be a choice between these two works of literature, it should clearly be “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

And Helen, I know your daughter’s paternal grandmother would have wholeheatedly agreed with you….and been happy to read/discuss the other book over the Summer with her

Ha! You’re right. We miss her, greatly. But now you have to tell me how you know that.

tk_in_TO says:

MethanP says:
there “kindles” …
My friends Emails…
Why spell, capitalize or punctuate. They don’t even use spell check.

@ MethanP, seems you don’t either,
“there” should be their
“my friends emails” should be my friend’s emails….
“kindles” should be Kindles
Practice what you preach, oh Great Literary One.

tk_in_TO says:

oh, MethanP, I missed one…”prodigeous” is actually spelled prodigious, go check the dictionary, you’ll see.

DHMCarver says:

Great piece — thanks for it. I have commented for years about how the great modern writers (Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Kerouac, etc.) were so effective precisely because they were steeped in the literary canon.

While we are on such topics, can we also decry the use of crutches such as “Shakespeare in Plain English” and the like.

tk_in_TO says:

oh yohoooo MethanP, Robert Heinline is actually Robert Heinlein.

Lived in the same’hood…She helped my guys with delivery of their bar mitzvah speeches.. attended so many of her fabulous 7-brachot on the deck….can’t believe you have a teenager, but then again I’m a savta…regards.

jacob arnon says:

“Great piece — thanks for it. I have commented for years about how the great modern writers (Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Kerouac, etc.) were so effective precisely because they were steeped in the literary canon.”

I’d substitute Bellow or Cheever for Kerouac.

Jane says:

Meir Shalev, in an address at the University of Chicago last year, noted much the same about the modern Israeli reader. He spoke about the fear that in 100 years no one will understand the references that pepper his and his contemporaries’ writing because of the lack of emphasis on studying “great books,” as well as the changing nature of communication. Though he is a secular Israeli, he was fearful that the secularization of education also brought about a lack of understanding of how quotes from the Tanakh have been interwoven into most Hebrew-language writers’ texts.

Jessie Sackler says:

Ah, me! Join the eternal complaint about our culture going to hell (no doubt the cavemen complained about the inadequate hunting skills of their offspring). On the other hand, you are not wrong to point us at serious, serious reading. On the 3rd hand, 3 of the 4 are not in English: have you indicated the best translations? I think one might look into Fagles’ Homer–wow! I suspect that you’ve been influenced by online availability, but the cheapest, most accessible (online) is not always (maybe not ever) the best or most accessible (that is, most likely to speak to people born in the last, say, eighty years. Even Milton could be helped by a glossary. And what, pray tell, is the matter with Shakespeare; there are those who think he taught us to be human (if you don’t know those persons, er, person, shame on you!). But enough kvetching; the idea is fine, the devil is in the details.

jacob arnon says:

“Meir Shalev, in an address at the University of Chicago last year, noted much the same about the modern Israeli reader. He spoke about the fear that in 100 years no one will understand the references that pepper his and his contemporaries’ writing because of the lack of emphasis on studying “great books,” as well as the changing nature of communication. Though he is a secular Israeli, he was fearful that the secularization of education also brought about a lack of understanding of how quotes from the Tanakh have been interwoven into most Hebrew-language writers’ texts.”

Meir Shalev is one of my favorite writers and his quote seems authentic to me.

Do you have a link or a reference to his address, Jane?

I’d love to read it.

jacob arnon says:

Jessie, readers of English need to get to read (and love books)in their language.

There is not such thing as a perfect translation, but if you get to love a book passionately enough you may want to learn to read it in its original.

I did it with Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale, and a number of novels by Benito Perez Galdos as well as Meir Shalev’s רומן רוסי “The Blue Mountain” (literally”Russian Novel;” and David Grossman’s שתהיי ל’ הסכין: “Be My Knife”

Lainie Friedman says:

Bravo, Liel Leibovitz! I really identify with your essay, myself being on the Great Books side. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and happen to share your opinion on this very important issue.

Lainie Friedman

philip mann says:

Add my congrats to the others,liel. Very well written.

It boils down to the whithering away of concentration-too many distractions,too many bright and shiny objects to look at. Books like The Shallows , by Nicholas Carr details how even reading on the net is too open to distractions. Getting into a book,getting involved in it,takes a state of mind that seems to be on the retreat these days

Steve says:

Congratulations on your epic condemnation of the state of modern education, ’twas brightly done.

greeneyeshade says:

I loved it.

Shalom Freedman says:

The first point regarding the importance of reading the ‘Classics’ of World Literature as basis for sharing a common culture of discourse, makes good sense. The animus against the Memoir however seems to me slightly displaced. Out of the Memoir has come much great Literature. I in my present stage of life seem to specially delight in Memoir, Autobiography, Biography and any work which tells the life- story in a convincing and moving way.

Chaim says:

Let me put in a plug for Shalem College, which will be introducing the “Great Books” concept in Israel — including Jewish classics, of course.

Al Averbach says:

“What Jews excel in aren’t opinions—the carefree and baseless expression of personal sentiment—but responsa, attempts to make sense of life that are rooted in a distinct tradition and a strong commitment to exploring and understanding its intricacies.”

A good observation, underpinning your general argument. (But I would offer that many Jews excel in and prize both.)

Carl Rosenberg says:

I find this idea–the only worthwhile reading is based on an obligatory, shared canon–humourless and oppressive. Not all readers respond to the same books, even among those for whom reading is more than a casual pastime. One of the greatest twentieth-century writers, Jorge Luis Borges (with a strong interest in Jewish history and culture) rejected the idea of obligatory reading, saying that “It’s only worthwhile to speak of obligatory happiness,” and that, “I want my work to be enjoyed–I’m not interested in respect.”

Spinoza says:

Wow. I agree with every word here

so what movies do you like?

Chaim Wolff says:

Please, read my book “The Lord Our God Is Truth” available from “offthebookshelf.com”, Amazon or Barnes and Noble. It is self published and the culmination of a lifetime of study from Plato to E. B. White and Genesis to the Messianic Age.

It includes a lot of what else is important for truth seekers.

Chezzy says:

I say: Load of bollocks. Seems like the only sane commenter here is Carl Rosenberg. Reading difficult (and often inaccessible works of literature is just another educational subject, like calculus or physics. Those are all good and well within the framework (and luxury) of a formal education, when students are encouraged to grapple with ideas and concepts that seem both difficult and tedious. But would Liebowitz make the same impassioned plea for people to set aside their iPods and smartphones for serious studies in, say, string theory?

What, pray tell, is the value of literature beyond the simple pleasure it might afford?

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Bookends

How serious is our society’s literacy problem? Unless we commit to being serious readers of a shared canon, we might as well stop reading altogether.

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