Vincent Mars makes a compelling case for the benefits of reading and writing. In addition to his observations and advice, I would add that many readers and writers throughout history have thought in a similar way. Montaigne said, “Books never pall upon me.” Goethe thought that the early-morning hours just before sunrise were golden for work and for reflection. Those were the hours, he thought, that a man might do his best work, unhindered, as Mars would have it, by our newspapers, our social media alerts, or the noise from our televisions.
A harder benefit to see, perhaps, is the emotional benefit of reading. Mars thinks highly of it as a coping strategy, and he’s not alone. Barrett Wendell, a Harvard-trained early teacher of composition in this country, believed in reading as a means of deepening our emotional resources, and scores of teachers all across the country followed him in that belief. Perhaps we take such an approach to literature for granted today, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was a revelation to many that literature could help us “find out what to do when we are in love,” as one teacher put it; or how to “cope with our miseries,” as another said. Literature–especially classical literature from the Greeks and Romans–had been used for centuries to impart moral lessons or lessons about character, but by the late nineteenth century, teachers had begun to realize that the poems, plays, and novels people had been reading on their own for generations as part of their informal education could be imported into the formal school curriculum, and entire courses of literature grew up alongside the already-existing courses of composition.
The formal study of literature has always been a political enterprise. It’s not only our day that uses literature to promote a particular worldview. Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Woolf, and Joyce have always been used to present somebody‘s vision of the way things are (usually, a conservative vision). But the marvelous thing about highly-talented writers is that their work nearly always resists the worldview or the interpretation we try to assign it. Shakespeare is and is not a feminist; Milton is and is not a conservative; Dickens was, by our terms, a Social Justice Warrior, but as David Copperfield and Pip asked, wasn’t making money (and spending it) fun?
Try to pigeonhole any of these writers and you’ll find yourself pigeonholed. Yet, the one constant amid the ebb of flow of political and social currents that make up the background against which literature gets taught is the idea that literature simply makes us better, more rounded, more empathetic human beings by reading it. We can certainly learn to write by reading–and we must–but reading does something else for us that is more profound: it makes us a more complex person, one more aware of and more sensitive to the people around us. We may very well be absorbed in our reading (a lovely feeling), but we almost always emerge from that reading far less self-absorbed than we were.