One of the most alarming cultural changes of our time is the decline of serious reading, that is, reading to gain insight into the human experience, as opposed to reading to solve a problem, to take awareness of current events or acquire professional skills. In other words, the influence of good literature is not as wide as it once was. And that should cause real concern.
This is especially evident to someone like me, who majored in English at WIU over half a century ago and then taught in that department for decades, focusing both on British and American literary traditions. In the 1960s, when I was studying at Western, English was the most popular subject. I was, in fact, one of over 600 students in this field. Of course, most of us planned to teach (some also planned to write), and there was a big market for these graduates.
Today, WIU’s English department has less than 100 majors. And job opportunities for graduates in this field have also declined. This situation in Western is common in colleges across the country, which also see far fewer students using library books.
A reflection of that case was a Netflix series this fall, titled “The Chair,” which portrayed a female chair of the English department at a liberal arts college, struggling to keep her department from declining, facing various negative changes. She had both a commitment to promoting understanding of literature and a deep appreciation for others.
What caused this change? Lots of things including the expansion of mass media over the last few generations. This has made many news sites available, but they do not provide the deep and intense experience that fine literature offers. Movies have replaced reading in some people’s lives as well – and many movies are now superficial representations of people, battling certain monsters rather than dealing with social or inner issues. In addition, there has been a general abandonment of general education, which has always promoted inner growth and helped societies cope with self-centeredness, bigotry and undemocratic tendencies.
Indeed, many people now see literature as having a narrow social purpose, especially that of celebrating a cultural group rather than deepening our sensitivity to all others, increasing our general awareness of human complexity, and fostering personal development.
One book that effectively addresses this decline in literary interest is “The Rise and Fall of English” by Robert Scholes. As he puts it of the changing nature and function of English studies in America, for example, âliterature, which once stood for universal values, is now considered [by some people] as representing more local, historical values ââlinked to particular times and places, and to [ethnic] groups and their interests.
Of course, the correct answer to this concern is to include writings graded by and about minorities in your awareness of the American literary tradition (which was generally not done in the past) without focusing your literary studies on writings. authors from your own racial group. . Otherwise, there is a tendency to further favor some sort of narrow response to the human experience. Or, as Scholes puts it, racially limited cultural experience of any kind can lead to “a loss of faith in universal values ââof all kinds.”
The need to encourage serious reading has prompted me to write journal articles about many American authors over the years, from classic figures like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Mark Twain to more modern writers. And of course, I’ve written about a host of famous Illinois authors including Ray Bradbury, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Studs Terkel, and others. And my anthology, “Illinois Literature: The Nineteenth Century,” features selected writings from, and commentaries on, dozens of authors, including women like Eliza Farnham and Mary Hartwell Catherwood, who have often been overlooked.
In recent years, I have also made an effort to draw public attention to many lesser-known Illinois authors, writing a series devoted to “Forgotten Voices in Illinois History” for the magazine ” Illinois Heritage â(published by the Illinois State Historical Society). . As the title of this series suggests, a question that also concerns me is that writers who have provided compelling accounts of the human experience often fade from public consciousness – or at least their books become obscure, even though their names do. are still familiar.
So I have written many series of articles that encourage people to read various books, such as the Autobiography of Black Hawk, which vividly reflects the culture and tragic fate of Native Americans in our state; âA True Picture of Emigrationâ by Rebecca Burlend, about her poor family’s struggle to settle on the western border of Illinois; âTwenty Years at Hull Houseâ by Jane Addams, an inspiring account of her efforts to help the slum poor; and black author Willard Motley’s novels about the harsh personal experience of Chicago: “Knock on Any Door” and “Let No Man Write My Epitaph”.
The current issue of “Illinois Heritage” includes my overview of the life and writings of Reverend Preston Bradley of Chicago, who was once a minister of national renown. He has helped many struggling people cope with their problems. A captivating book is his autobiography, “Along the Way”, which reveals how deeply he has been influenced by a variety of authors.
In any case, not just writers like me, but teachers, parents, and civic leaders must promote serious reading, if Americans are to grow as internally as possible, understand what connects us all deeply, and appreciate the many facets of human. struggle.
Author and speaker John Hallwas is a columnist for the McDonough County Voice.