In thinking of some of the difficulties facing our society in our day I often wonder about the role of reading. It was then I finally stumbled upon this talk. Some of the most thought provoking comments I have copied here.
In the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy assume their rightful thrones and Kings and Queens of Narnia. Lewis dedicates only one sentence to describing how they governed during the Golden Age of Narnia, but it is interesting to hear his summary of their most important accomplishments. Lewis tells us that they “made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being cut down and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.
It is interesting to note that the first item of business after keeping the peace and protecting the environment was abolishing school! Narnia is thus the first kingdom where home-schooling is not only encouraged, it is required! But I think Lewis was talking less about the institution of school and more about what was being taught there. And when it came to what was being taught, Lewis thought that stories made all the difference.
Lewis begins The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with a memorable introduction of a new character: “There was once a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubbs, and he almost deserved it.” In introducing us to Eustace, Lewis believes the best way for the reader to understand him is to know the kinds of books he reads. “He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.” In other words, he didn’t have time for the types of stories that Lewis adored-stories about heroism, knights and talking animals.
As a result, Eustace is at a significant disadvantage when he first arrives in Narnia and finds himself in a dragon’s lair. “Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair,” Lewis writes, “but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”
The situation worsens when the dragon begins to stir: “Something was crawling. Worse still, something was coming out of the cave. Edmund or Lucy or you would have recognized it at once, but Eustace had read none of the right books.”
Clearly Lewis is telling us something about more than dragons and talking mice. He is giving us a simple instruction: You are what you read. We are shaped and influenced by the books that we read. They prepare us for more than interesting conversations – they actually prepare us to face real crises that we encounter in life. Few people would dispute this simple statement, so let’s ask the related question: What are we reading today?
The short answer is: not much. A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report entitled “Reading at Risk” Many people here are probably familiar with its findings, but allow me to repeat the headline: For the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population now reads literature. The decline is across all races, all education levels, and all age groups…
The report went on to show that the decline in literary reading strongly correlates to a decline in cultural and civic participation. Literary readers are more than twice as likely as non-literary readers to perform volunteer and charity work, nearly three times as likely to attend performing arts events, and nearly four times as likely to visit art museums. Before you begin to think that this is limited to highbrow events, literary readers are even substantially more likely to attend sporting events than non-literary readers. And before you begin to think that the group of people making up literary readers is a group of Luddites that has sworn off electronic media, the report found that literature readers still managed to watch close to three hours of television each day!…
The report concludes on a rather somber note: at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century. This decline will not be reversed by any one solution. In fact, it will require a number of innovative ones from a number of different groups…
… project opens up a fair debate about whether children should read books that have such frightening content. C.S. Lewis tackled this issue head-on when and offered some good advice that informs how we select our projects: “Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the…atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”
(Micheal Flaherty, President of Walden Media, given at Hillsdale College 30 Jan 2007)