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The Lost Art of Reading


One of the most important parts of our cultural decline can be tied to the collapse in Western society of reading books, particularly old-fashioned paper books. Not only has this meant a sharp decline in our cultural understanding of great literary works, historical illiteracy, scientific ignorance, it has also led to a decline in the virtues cultivated through habits. 


In ancient societies, the absence of written language meant that knowledge was intricately woven through the threads of oral tradition. Long before the written word became a ubiquitous medium, our ancestors relied on the art of storytelling, passing down wisdom through spoken narratives. This process required an active engagement of the mind, as individuals had to think critically, conjure mental images, and make connections to fully understand the lessons and stories imparted. For example, ancient civilisations like the Greeks preserved their histories, beliefs, and cultural practices through oral traditions, ensuring the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. The reliance on oral tradition not only showcased the power of memory but also highlighted the human capacity for abstract thinking and creativity. We have the timeless Aesop’s fables thanks to this oral tradition. 


With the written word's advent, a transformative shift occurred in the way knowledge was disseminated. The development of writing systems and, later, the widespread accessibility of printed materials after the invention of the printing press revolutionised education and communication. Reading became a fundamental skill, requiring individuals to not only decode written symbols but also to annotate, reflect, and draw connections between different pieces of information. This development allowed for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of concepts, fostering critical thinking and analytical skills. However, it also demanded active engagement from the reader, encouraging a more intentional and deliberate approach to the acquisition of knowledge. 


The evolution of television and the internet has marked a significant shift in the primary mode of communication, with visual imagery taking precedence. In this multimedia age, information is often presented in visually compelling formats, promoting a more passive engagement from the audience. Moreover, this transition to a visually dominant communication landscape may contribute to a diminished connection to reading, as the written word is increasingly supplemented or replaced by visual stimuli. This has led to a society that only seeks what is instantly gratifying and easily digestible. Information that requires patience and perserverance to acquire is foresaken for this new format.


This has led to a subsequent decline in virtue in our society, as we lose connection to wisdom that has come before us. A wise person learns from those that have come before him. In our Chreia and Proverbs class, the students have been pondering St. Augustine’s Chreia: “patience is the companion to wisdom”. Indeed, taking the time to patiently read and write in our books, to ponder and reflect, certainly leads us on the path to wisdom. In our classes we use a practice reminiscent of Petrarch's unconventional yet enlightening approach to engaging with literature—book annotations. Petrarch, a fourteenth-century Italian monk hailed as the "father of humanism," wrote letters to long-gone literary giants like Cicero, Seneca, Homer, and Socrates, sparking a dialogue across centuries. Despite the absence of responses, Petrarch saw himself immersed in a timeless conversation about ideas as relevant then as they are now. 


Reading: Stoking the Moral Imagination

The practice of annotations requires the student to ask questions, connect to knowledge outside the text, and revel in the novel's deeper connection, finding delight when they can make connections. In our literature study of "Tales of Shakespeare" by Charles and Mary Lamb, the children have been delighting in reading the adapted versions (and annotating the text). We are reading "The Merchant of Venice," and in class, students discuss the annotations they have made. One student had annotated the line, “The rich heiress that Bassanio wished to marry lived near Venice, at a place called Belmont: her name was Portia, and in the graces of her person and her mind, she was nothing inferior to that Portia, of whom we read, who was Cato's daughter and the wife of Brutus.” She discussed who Portia was (from "Julius Caesar," also by Shakespeare) and what the author was alluding to regarding the nature of her character. Both women were of beauty and intellectual strength, as well as astute in worldly matters, and loyal to their husbands. This discussion sparked the moral imagination of other students, and they sought to find the hidden treasures and deeper meaning of the story. The “pound of flesh,” the judgment by Daniel, provides another rich and meaningful connections for students. 



These beautiful conversations are not only held between the reader and the authors. The beauty of annotating the book means that the rereading of the book allows you to see your earlier annotations and then add to them, as you have grown in knowledge and experience. How did your earlier self-interpret this passage? Has that interpretation changed? Did you gain a different meaning and understanding? Additionally, it allows for a generational legacy to pass on to future generations of your family. For those of us who have lost parents and grandparents, what a joy it is to pick up a book with our loved ones' thoughts and reflections; it is a priceless gift. 


So much of our modern society has lost touch with the wisdom and knowledge of our ancient past. Timeless truths that were once widely understood now appear to be forgotten. This realisation struck me during a recent Fables class. We were exploring the tale of the Mischievous Dog, a story that carries a moral lesson. In this fable, a dog who bites people has a bell placed around his neck by his owner, something the dog takes pride in. However, his perception changes when the old hound confronts him, bluntly revealing his disgraceful behavior. This encounter reflects a form of tough love, an approach often recognised by our ancestors as necessary. Such fables convey profound messages to young readers. Firstly, they illustrate the wisdom of the older generation, encouraging the young to heed their advice. Secondly, it highlights the folly of seeking notoriety, emphasising that it is merely a path to disgrace. This episode reminded me once again of the importance of a classical education. As I glanced at the front page of the morning's paper, filled with news of young criminals committing violent acts and filming them, I couldn't help but think that these children should have been exposed to such timeless truths from a young age. These children were using their phones to capture their deeds- just like the dog with the bell. Doing harm, seeking notoritiey. It was wrong in ancient Greece and wrong today. We fail them by neglecting to instil in them values of goodness, truth, and beauty. 

 

We should all seek to put down our devices, pick up a pen and a great book and start having a conversation with the past. 

 

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