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Leaving The Great Books Unfinished

By Theodore J. Gioia, Contributing Writer

There is no novel so great that I cannot put it down. I made it through a hundred and fifty pages of “War and Peace.” I called it quits on “Moby Dick” after the sixth chapter on the subtle complexities of whale oil. “Wuthering Heights” withered after seventy pages. “Gravity’s Rainbow” only lasted nine. I’ve accumulated a pretty impressive list of books that I’ve stopped reading. In fact, my growing catalog rivals many lists of the greatest novels ever written.

Whether it’s an overbearing workload, the death-march pace of classes with gargantuan reading lists, my own lackadaisical demeanor, or books that are three hundred pages too long, I constantly find myself tossing aside several unfinished books each semester. I like to think that I read more carefully and thoughtfully than other students, that it just takes me longer to read a book satisfactorily and that there isn’t enough time to finish everything. But my rationalization often ignores the embarrassing truth.

I usually make a judgment about a book after reading the first chapter; sometimes even the first page. If I don’t find a novel interesting, I generally stop, no matter how distinguished its literary pedigree. I quit reading “Kristin Lavransdatter” (Sigrid Undset’s Nobel-Prize winning historical romance set in 14th century Norway) after the first sentence, “When the earthly goods of Ivar Gjesling the Younger of Sundbu were divided up in the year 1306, his property at Sil was given to his daughter Ragnfrid and her husband Lavrans Bjorgulfson.” Perhaps I was unfair to Ms. Undset, but I do not regret my escape for a moment.

This phenomenon is hardly unique to me. It has become an epidemic among our generation. Rather than vainly lamenting the trend, it is more pragmatic to analyze it. The most useful critical exercise we can perform is to examine candidly why people stop reading a book rather than focusing on why people start reading books. Usually someone does not stop reading a novel for a sharply-defined ideological reason, but rather because the book failed to engage them. Is it possible sometimes the book is to blame and not the reader? Countless thinkers have offered explanations for this problem, but few actually explore the qualities of the literature itself that might distance books from their potential readers.

Some naysayers pontificate about the imminent death of literature because young people don’t read anymore. They often cite the waning attention span of younger generations arising from technology. Harold Bloom said in an interview that the problem is primarily a result of technological change: “People are trapped in the age of what you might call the triple screen: the motion-picture screen—and this is in ascending order of evil in terms of what it does to their minds throughout the world—the television screen, and finally the computer screen, which is the real villain.” Mr. Bloom extends his argument further in his book “How to Read and Why” by asserting that in the age of the internet “information is endlessly available to us. Where shall wisdom be found?”

This line of reasoning goes on to argue that today’s children, raised in this hi-tech age obsessed with the speed of information and communication, no longer have the patience necessary to read works of any length. My dad never misses an opportunity to wax nostalgic about the lost simplicity of his childhood when he sees me working on the computer with four other windows open while listening to music and having a conversation on iChat.

Novels are antithetical to the hasty lifestyle of today’s world. Reading forces us to pause our own lives in order to inhabit the consciousness of another being. One of the great discoveries of reading is that slowing down life allows one to appreciate the world more deeply. Many believe that it is exactly this ability to slow down life that has become increasingly difficult and uninteresting for younger generations.

While there may be some truth in the claims about cultural decline, I believe the issue is more complicated. It’s reductive and overly deterministic to claim literature is doomed because it’s an antiquated technology in the modern era. In fact, the very reasons some critics cite for the death of reading prove why literature is especially essential for our generation.

Reading pulls us away from an environment flooded with constant activity. It forces us to cast aside everything else and give undivided attention to a book for a sustained period of time. The contrast between the calm of the printed page and the frenetic pace of contemporary life is greater today than for any previous generation. Technology intensifies the interior world of self-reflection found by reading literature because it is so different than the rest of our lives. Paradoxically, the current technological age heightens the particular power of literature—making books truly indispensable to our generation.

This conclusion permits the question: If books are so valuable, why is it so easy for students to stop reading them? There is no single answer or simple explanation to this issue, but I think there are valid intellectual and emotional reasons why books often fail to engage with young readers that run far deeper than shortened attention span or the temptations of Facebook. Attempting to understand the multifaceted roots of this trend is critical for comprehending literature’s role in the future.

I remain convinced that our generation loves literature. Whether people enjoy fiction for the lowbrow thrills of adventure and basic storytelling or they savor the intellectual pleasures of literary novels, I’ve found that pretty much anyone can enjoy reading. Now more than ever it is critical to re-evaluate how younger generations view and interact with literature. In the meantime, it looks like my list is about to get longer.

—Columnist Theodore J. Gioia can be reached at tgioia@fas.harvard.edu.

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