On Books and Reading

In this Anthology, Ken Myers talks with poet and former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia about the decline in reading among Americans of all ages and education. Also discussing the benefits of reading and the tragedy of its decline are literary critic Sven Birkerts, painter Makoto Fujimura, columnist Maggie Jackson, pastor-theologian Eugene Peterson, preacher and media ecologist Gregory Edward Reynolds, and portrait painter Catherine Prescott73 minutes. $6.

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    Makoto Fujimura: “We’re losing our capacity to empathize with the outer world . . .”

     Painter, Makoto Fujimura, discusses the extensive literary skills of painter, Vincent van Gogh, and our need to become more literate in a world dominated by images.

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    Sven Birkerts: These students “didn’t seem to have the empathic will to cross over and imagine themselves in [in a Henry James short story].”

    Cultural critic Sven Birkerts laments the contemporary love affair with technology that reduces reading to an anachronistic art. In his book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Birkerts examines how human understanding of the world and the self is shaped by the process of reading. He asserts that reading cultivates empathy for the lives of others, develops sympathy for the past and teaches the value of inwardness. A generation raised on television lacks imagination, preferring to be passively entertained. Birkerts worries that the instantaneous access to information flattens our understanding of how facts fit together over time. In our fascination with data, we are losing dimensionality.

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    Catherine Prescott: When Frederick Douglas “learned to read, he could give words to his passions which helped him to think and to put together what things mean . . .”

    Catherine Prescott discusses her experiences painting portraits of people reading. She describes the reasons she chooses certain individuals as her portrait subjects and discusses how the interior life of a person is expressed through the body as meaningful manifestations. What we read can play an important part in forming our interior lives and in this way, painting people reading can be more interesting and meaningful with respect to who they are and who they are becoming.

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    Birkerts: “A book is also a piece of history . . . ”
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    Prescott: The presence of a book “is something that connects you to everything inside . . .”
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    Gregory Edward Reynolds: "If we don’t attend to the nature of media we will become their victims."

    The Rev. Gregory Reynolds discusses the kind of healthy disengagement reading encourages in allowing readers to take the time to think deeply about a subject to better engage reality. On the contrary, visual media often encourages a kind of engagement whose immersive qualities prevent a kind of distance necessary for an intentional engagement between the person and the subject. Reynolds warns against the unthinking acceptance of new technological media that can shape our lives in powerful ways.

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    Maggie Jackson: “Attention is the stepping stone to the highest kind of human that we can be . . .”

    Writer Maggie Jackson reflects upon the fundamental necessity of cultivating attention.

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    Eugene Peterson: on reading with his wife and his congregation

    Pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson talks about reading with his wife and about encouraging a community of readers within his congregation.

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    Gioia: on strategies for recovering good reading habits

    Gioia points out that the growing educational focus on the literacy of children is not being followed through to the adolescent and adult years, precisely when other commercial media increase their influence.