As a professor of literature, I have noted a trend that helps explain the decline of the humanities as an object of reverence in this country: Students are less prone to read for pleasure than they used to be.
Blame the packed nature of their course schedules and the many activities that compete for their attention. Universities still teach literature, but these courses tend to serve an instrumental purpose. Students read in these courses to acquire certain skills or apply certain critical techniques. The idea of pleasure — and the value of pleasure — isn't usually discussed.
But humanities education should, it seems to me, cultivate a desire to read books for their own sake — to help students understand that literature will nourish them emotionally and intellectually throughout their lives by serving as a diversion from the mundane or even the more serious aspects of life. Reading good books is valuable because it makes for curious, engaged and interesting people. More than that, it offers solace and escape in the face of loss, disappointment and existential despair.
I was reinforced in this belief when I received a letter from the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute at Fayette, near Pittsburgh. The writer had been part of a correspondence course I had taught last year in which a group of Drexel students selected stories and essays that were sent to a group of men incarcerated at the prison. The men read the works and sent responses to the students.
Both the students and their correspondents in prison were enormously invested in the course. Both felt that reading good literature and corresponding across their different backgrounds and experiences opened their minds and hearts.
The letter I received six months after the class ended was from Richard Guy, a participant in that course who had spent 33 years in prison. The letter expressed, simply and cogently, what literature is good for. His words deserve to be read by all educators and social reformers. Here is an excerpt from it:
"Ever since the class ended I have been reading a half hour before bed each night, regardless of how much I've read earlier in the day. It has made me wonder how anyone who does not read books, by which I mean daily, having some book going all the time, can make it through life. If I were required to make a sharp division in the very nature of people, and prisoners in particular, I would be tempted to make it there: readers and nonreaders of books.
"It is astonishing how the presence or absence of this habit so consistently characterizes an individual in other aspects like temperament, personality and even of character.
"For me, reading like this is my sanity insurance, Paula.
"I make it a point in that half hour, that what I read should have nothing to do with my day in prison, but would bear me away into other realms, kingdoms of the mind and spirit.
"Sometimes my mind wants to slip away to my worries and concerns and even longings like good food, tomorrow's softball game and, being heterosexual, women.
"But I push them back, lock them up again as I've long since learned to do as a matter of personal survival to be dealt with in the light of day. As the books absorb me and go into me and become a part of me so that they are something I will always have — I possess the books and the books possess me — until late at night I reluctantly mark my place in The Kreutzer Sonata, thank Mr. Tolstoy, and reach up and snap off the overhead light.
"Thanks again, Paula, for your motivation regarding this aspect of my life."
A teacher could not want more than this to validate her mission. The sentiments expressed by Richard Guy explain, as eloquently as I can imagine, how great literature can elevate the mind and spirit and provide the "sanity insurance" we all need to get through life.
Paula Marantz Cohenis the dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University.
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