Opinion

Does Reading Really Matter? Shades of Poe

Does Reading Really Matter? Shades of Poe

Courtesy photo by John Bryant

Walter Ritter

The Big Read: Shades of Poe is a month-long celebration inspiring San Diegans to read Edgar Allan Poe through visual art, performances, music, exhibits, and celebrity appearances. Here’s a full schedule.

Why read literature? Reading is important for many reasons we all know: opens the door to new worlds; keeps the brain nimble; engages one with language and culture; and certainly helps with SAT scores. Yet none of these reasons make reading literature imperative. Is there such a reason?

I decided to read about it. Perhaps I would stumble across a useful notion from someone smart or, better, wise. You do encounter the most remarkable things when you read and in short order I found something perfectly on-point: Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies, had this to say:

Does it matter? What use is the imagination — as opposed to, say, the kind of mental agility, the quick-reflex thinking, that video games encourage? What is the argument we make for reading and daydreaming and cultivating inner resonances? I would say, to put it in the simplest terms, that imagination nourishes the primary self. As much as our skills and practical accomplishments bolster a sense of independent identity, imagination fills out the inner counterpart. It consolidates the “I” by making plausible the other. Imagination enables empathy, and imagination exercised through reading, through the work of inhabiting the language and sensibility of created characters… pushes continually against the solipsism fed to us by a marketing industry selling consumption as the index of our worth.

Birkerts to the rescue! This is wonderful! By challenging — through reading — our imagination to engage and embrace ever changing, often alien, characters, circumstances, and dilemmas, we expand our ability to empathize and understand; to be human, that is. If that isn’t an imperative, we’d better just drink the Kool-Aid.

If reading literature matters, then so does “The Big Read: Shades of Poe.” Its objective — to inspire people to read literature for the sheer joy of it — is a step in the right direction at a time when fewer and fewer Americans are reading. According to a study released by the National Endowment for the Arts, fewer than half of all Americans now read literature. The steepest decline was found among young readers and overall the rate of decline nearly tripled in the last decade. Reading is in real trouble.

The purpose of The Big Read: Shades of Poe is to stop this decline. Nothing less. We do not know what will trigger in a youngster an appetite for reading, but we do know that a catalyst exists. By challenging youngsters to read a bit of Poe and then re-imagine it in a form and fashion that is personally important to them, we think they will find the trigger. This is what we’ve been doing in classrooms and workshops that started last September and are still underway. In April, however, the focus will change from youngsters to the entire community, for the decline in reading is a community-wide condition and we are just as eager to see an adult resume reading literature for pleasure as we are to see a youngster begin.

April will be a month full of events all over our region: performances, exhibits, readings and discussions about Edgar Allan Poe. Poe will be present at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the Lyceum Theatre, Mission Trails Regional Park, libraries and many other venues. Please join us as often as you can. The programs are varied and invariably interesting. For a complete listing, visit our website or just contact us at the Write Out Loud office (our dining room!) at 619-297-8953 or WriteOutLoudsd@gmail.com.

Walter Ritter is the executive director of Write Out Loud.


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