As a society, writes Liel Leibovitz, we have “rejected the thick weave of common culture for the gossamer of individual opinions” both as readers and writers. His essay in the online magazine Tablet offers a noisy defense of a common literary canon. Unless we commit to being serious readers, Leibovitz argues, we might as well just stop reading at all.
“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 devaluation of knowledge in schools and lack of a common canon has created a culture of “poor readers, middling writers, and unfortunate human beings,” argues Leibovitz, whose most recent book is The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ideals of Divine Election, co-written with Todd Gitlin. He is particularly scornful of the current vogue for memoirs. If you’re Winston Churchill and you won World War II and the Nobel Prize for Literature, then by all means write your memoirs. “Heck, make that two,” Leibovitz quips. “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.”
Leibovitz acknowledges that his own opinions “might send many readers into fits of modern indignation.” Why not read for pleasure and share your points of view with a waiting world? “The blunt answer is that points of view do not matter in the least,” he concludes. “Points of view are to knowledge what dessert is to vegetables: You earn one only by first consuming the other.”
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