Paris LeClaire is a founder and EIC of the Paper Crane.
The youth's disillusionment with reading is, in most respects, a universal and relentless state of mind. We begin in a puddle of words and numbers—we learn to read them and write them to the most fundamental point of our education. And as we become older, or what we think is older, a great spell falls upon us like an invisible mist: unsuspecting, unbothered. It seems, now, that even a name as resonant as Jane Austen holds the same power, or even more, in the balance of disinterest than the mother of a friend of a friend from down the road. But who's to blame? And, of course, so what?
The number of those young people who read habitually are dropping, a fact not surprising on paper or said out loud. Most would draw things up to some kind of critical laziness, or a teenage lack of attention span, or something even more dire and judgmental—the violent assault of electronics. But before we approach or attempt to solve the lack of reading among children, we must answer the bigger question: why is it that we must read?
And what a question. At the surface, reading is the result of an evolutionary, unspoken need for communication. Before there was any reading, there were repetitive marks. Although our brains have been developing for all the time we've existed on planet Earth, our early ancestors needed a sign, a necessity, for the progression of this process.
An apparent symmetry of the world around us, and our innate human abilities for observation and contextualization, led to symbolism, which led to the engravings scattered around the earliest fields of hominid history. But it was only 5,000 years ago that we could ever begin to read and write. One could make the conclusion that our literacy began out of necessity, or out of the natural and cosmic ways of evolution. However, in making these conclusions, we forget about the core of consciousness and the life of a human being: expression.
Art is human. Humans are art. The cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene believes the parts of our brains that developed our literacy skills are a product of the spoken language. And of course it's all so predictable, the eddies of life itself: we speak, we remember, we forget. We speak back and then we remember again. As for that which we must not speak of, which carries volumes of knowledge incommunicable but only fathomable, that is where writing comes in.
There is a symbiotic relationship between writing and reading. We read because we have written. We write because we must express some version of ourselves. Reading is listening to inaudible thoughts. To read is to understand.
But if no one listens, why do we speak?
Literature, Storytelling, and the Power of Humanity
Storytelling is intrinsic to literature. It's not difficult to come to that conclusion, but the conclusion itself speaks volumes. Everything we say, orally or not, is a story itself, or one cog in a great machine of storytelling. One the greatest reasons for which humans live is storytelling. We have myths behind us and ahead of us; we worship stories and characters in a literal sense; we rely on tall tales and history to understand our place in the world; we craft our own stories to decide who we are.
We must continue to read so we have a story to tell.
The two actions are mutually exclusive; without writing there is no need to read, and without the comprehension of written language, all literature is devoid of any purpose.
In 2017, the median income of authors was just over $6,000. In fact, the value of writing as a career has decreased 42% over the last decade. It's not just that writing is a fake, fruitless career and writers are just hermit hacks who are opposed to participating in worldly affairs—no, it is an international emergency of almost a religious importance.
There is a clear developmental benefit for those who partake in reading as a pastime. Reading literally strengthens the circuits of the brain. Those who read more in a short period have been proven to have more active brain patterns as the ebbs and flows of a novel puzzle and exhilarate their thoughts. Habitual reading also affects the development of cognitive decline, stress, and sleep.
Even in examining the biological benefits and necessities, we perhaps neglect what humanity is without literature, and the truest impact of its gospels. Our words have been woven to portray who we are and where we have been; literature is, in essence, why we live and what we live for.
The stories we read in print, whether fictional or not, are the reflecting lenses of truth; a kaleidoscope of reality. Literature allows us to imagine once again what has already been put in front of us. Consider our our day's most famous literarians: Ernest Hemingway, often deemed the "most important" author of the twentieth century, based his popular novels A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and particularly For Whom the Bell Tolls off his experiences as an ambulance driver during World War I--a battle so dark and so costly of lives that our modern world has taken to forgetting it ever happened.
Reading and writing are skills unique to humans, skills unique to 0.01% of all life on Earth. They are skills unique to a reeking, troublesome, wonderful group of animals who have done nothing--through survival, through settlement, through warfare--except live. There is no proof of our pitiful and marvelous life without our written word. There is no proof of our struggle and beauty without literature.
In a Tweet, the acclaimed author and activist Maya Angelou wrote, "If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young." Angelou was one in the neverending line of children who read to be entertained, interested, and most of all, understood. What we find in books are fantasies made truth by a magic of the words. Storytelling reveals to us that there is more in the world, that there can be more in the world. Even and especially what has come but hasn't really gone. Literature makes necromancers out of us all.
Angelou's bright and weary childhood, as discussed her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings cultivated a poet and author of some of the most acclaimed genius of anyone in the contemporary era. She told the story of herself, any by doing so, she made herself and her struggle understood. She made others understood by only her witness. There is a story in anything and everything. Likewise, there is a storyteller anywhere. And the bridge between the story and teller lies in that which we understand.
Give a novel to a child, and if the world is fortunate enough for them to read it, the child will have been touched, in some way, by the author. Give a novel to a child, and they will learn what humanity has achieved beyond their neighborhood walls. There is an intangible element of hope when the youth bear witness to literature--a beacon that, for now and for the future's future, we will continue to live.
Why Do You Read?
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