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Anthony Esolen on the Importance of Not Reading
When I was a boy, if you read at age four, you were a genius, but there were things more important than reading. You could poke a stick in the sand of a ditch. You could crush a rock against the concrete to draw pictures. Recess was the heart of school, as play and not work is the heart of life. I’m a man now, surrounded by books, sentenced to sentences, yet the rebellious boy in me rises up now and then to whip them back to their dens. Why, the best Book I know is sweetest when seen and lived.
Why should that rebel read? What is the point?
This summer, among the driftwood my wife saved from the local library was The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, an autobiographical book about boyhood and doghood by the Canadian Farley Mowat. Jotted on the inside jacket by an inattentive librarian are the words “Animal Fiction.” It figures.
Mr. Mowat—now in his eighties, and an incorrigible rebel against modern ease—writes about something as rich and strange as a flying carpet: a real boyhood with real adventures. That boyhood was provided for him by his beloved and half-mad father, his game-for-anything mother, an owl with a penchant for nibbling visitors’ ears, and a brainy dog named Mutt.
No early-learning program for this lad; a child with a large capacity for wonder requires a plain and a sky, and a plain and a sky are what he got. The Mowats moved to Saskatoon, a town in the middle of Canada’s dust bowl, perched beside a sewage-sludged ditch called the South Saskatchewan River. They got there in a half-houseboat upended and hitched to a Model-A, sleeping in berths carved out by Mr. Mowat. In it they had a primus stove, maps, gimbals, and other nautical paraphernalia, rigged up right proper for a schoonering journey across flatlands a thousand miles from the sea.
Mr. Mowat, an old city fellow, reasoned that if you’re going to live on the prairie, you have to live on the prairie. While he was checking out a hunting dog that would have cost him two months’ wages, his helpmeet and loving adversary anticipated him by buying, for four cents, a puppy from a little boy knocking on doors, selling ducklings for a dime.
They called it Mutt, and rightly so: hind legs bigger than forelegs, bulbous nose, feathered setter paws, and a coat as thick and mud-friendly as a retriever’s. Mutt was usually black and white, except once when Mr. Mowat commenced the epic dog bath, and, trying to bleach away the yellow of months of adventures with mud and skunks and carcasses, rendered him a bright and scandalous blue.
How many things could such a dog learn, unfettered by the rules of safety! For safety kills; only in adventure is there security. For Mutt’s—and their own—first hunting trip, Farley and his father drove in the dead of winter a hundred miles away to a salt slough where they had been told the greenhead mallards would light. You have to get the ducks before they rise in the morning from the water to continue their own journeying. Father and son and dog burrow into the side of a haystack, waiting for hours for the dawn.
The author is just a boy, but he knows the excitement of hard work, of patience to the point of exhaustion; the cold and the wet; the forbidding beauty of nature, and a father’s unshakeable will; a clean gun and a good dog, and no idea what may happen next:
Somewhere far overhead—or perhaps it was only in my mind—I heard the quivering sibilance of wings. I reached out my hand and touched the cold, oily barrel of my gun lying in the straw beside me; and I knew a quality of happiness that has not been mine since that long-past hour.
That first expedition failed. Mutt rushed the ducks before the man and boy could get a shot off, and went on a noisy spree, returning a full two hours later, dejected and duckless. But Mr. Mowat was not to be daunted by reality. Mutt eventually learned so well that Mr. Mowat once laid a wager on him, prompted by an arrogant New Yorker who insisted that Saskatchewan hunting dogs had shown him nothing. Mr. Mowat called Mutt over to him, pointed a gun out the window, and yelled, “Bang bang!” Mutt reappeared a few minutes later, with the grocer hollering behind him—he had retrieved the stuffed grouse from the window of the general store.
An Odd Job
But I have not said what Mr. Mowat did for a living; and this, for me, is the oddest and saddest thing about the story. Farley’s father, who lived as real a life as any man, and who gave his son a boyhood full of moments unique in the annals of boyhood and therefore just like what any boy would cherish—this father was a librarian.
True it is: He was a gun-toting, canvas-strapping, bird-dogging librarian, traveling from Ontario to -Saskatoon to take the job as head of the town’s library. Now this is surely strange. Nowhere does Farley Mowat say that he owed anything at all to books, other than that his father read all about northern hunting before he came to Saskatchewan, and apparently read it to good effect, after a couple of mishaps secured the lessons.
Books must have been a part of the Mowat household—the father was a stickler for grammar and an implacable enemy of the popular magazine—but it was outdoors, climbing trees, waiting tensely behind a duck-blind, or indoors, pottering about with his turtles and snakes, or cleaning his rifle, or helping his father plane the good ship Concepcion (so called, said Mr. Mowat with typical rakishness, because he had been conceived on the water, in a green canoe), that Farley Mowat learned to write.
I could now turn to the usual, and just, harangue against the loss of good books. I could note the stories that David Copperfield (no stranger to adventure, as it turned out) told the boys at school, tales from his lonely reading at home during the dark days of the Murdstone occupation; tales of Sinbad, Ali Baba, Roderick -Random, Peregrine Pickle, and as much as a little boy could understand of the rollicking adventures of Tom Jones. Dickens’s fictional child read what no child—nay, what no high-school student and hardly a college student now reads, or even is capable of reading. I could do this, and encourage people to read those old books again; but that is not exactly my point.
I have heard it said that there is an ignorance in books as well as an ignorance of books, and I believe it: Books are no substitute for seeing and doing, for making with one’s own hands, for swinging an axe or a sword. What is the point of reading, anyway?
To stretch the imagination—that is not a bad answer; but if the imagination is not already formed by real encounters with strange people and things, whether on the caked-mud mosquito troughs of Saskatchewan or the alleys of Brooklyn, what is there to stretch? And why do we believe that that same imagination is not stretched by the physical necessities of adventure and ingenuity and action?
The problem with our boys is not that they don’t read. They don’t read—and this may make them more truly educable in the long, long run than their sisters, though it makes school more than usually cramping for them. The problem is that we’ve forgotten that there is any form of education other than that to be had by reading. For Christians this amnesia is particularly inexplicable, since Jesus was no bandier of quotes, nor was it an owlish rabbi who whipped the moneychangers.
Jesus probably had the Scriptures memorized while he was yet a boy, but when he wanted to think, which is to say when he wanted to pray, he retreated to the hills, to the desert—to the dusty lizard-scuttled paths, to the sheer mountain a-building its storm cloud to the west, to the million still strange voices of all the creatures of our God and King. Jesus’ hands were callused from working wood, and by that labor, in his humanity, he came to such a knowledge of the sweating and swearing men he worked among that the greatest psychologist or the greatest moral philosopher, a Freud or an Aristotle, seems by comparison but an inattentive trader in platitudes.
In the meantime, what we do give the boys and their sisters to read is either infantile or is baldly political, written in the brainwashing lingo of the social scientist. Thus we have the worst of all possible worlds. Farley Mowat’s father was a librarian, and that meant that Farley probably read some excellent books, because his father would have no other sorts of books in the house.
Otherwise, neither Farley nor his father wasted his precious time by reading. He had a real life—a Mutt’s life, walking fences and worrying skunks. He was neither ignorant in books (he knew how to clean and load a gun; he knew the habits of mallards and pintails; he knew the varieties of that gaudiest of birds, Homo insipiens), nor was he ignorant of books, at least not of the good ones. We have managed to raise our miscalled students ignorant in both ways at once.
Reading is no more to be done for its own sake than is eating. Good food can trim your waist and harden your muscles, and bad food can make you fat and slow and ready for disease. Bad reading not only wastes time; not only does it fail in its vaunted objective, to make you “well-rounded,” whatever that twinkie image is supposed to mean; bad reading makes you stupid. Assuming that if you are not reading, you must be doing something, anything, bad reading at the least steals away time you might spend planing a board or walking down by the river to search for turtles; at worst, it inoculates you against good reading.
It is the fake that makes you think you have what is difficult and adventurous and real. It is the mind on a leash, that is so used to the leash it wouldn’t know where to go without it. A mind filled with the maunderings of Danielle Steele or, perish the thought, of the Daily Fish Wrap, will not tolerate something as painstaking and edgy as waiting for a thousand mallards, or reading Huckleberry Finn.
Reading’s Padded Cells
Worse, that may well be the kind of mind we reward—a mind possessed of a two-inch shallow verbality—with good grades and promotion along the schooling conveyor.
We have assumed that unless you read (and by this we mean unless you are competent in reading such stuff as would have pitched Mr. Mowat into a rage had he found it in his house) you are not intelligent, you are not educable, you are not college material, you will not be well paid, you are not worth paying attention to. So it is that our effeminate silliness dances merrily along with an iron and unappeasable snobbery.
No one burns books nowadays. Burning books is an exciting and public thing, providing a great bonfire and opportunities for brawling. We do things in a more civilized way. Libraries themselves purge books; they quietly deposit them on a cart, twenty-five cents apiece, and, after a week or two, send them down the memory hole: that is, throw them into a dumpster, whence they will go to have their pages pecked at by seagulls at the landfill. Then we replace them with the readerly equivalent of padded cells and leashes, nice books that say whatever moronisms happen to be popular.
We replace them with gaudy picture books about a character on a television show for children, a large effete grape named Bernie or Benny or whatever, or about a girl who hits home runs in the major leagues, or a witch who was a good witch despite the mean old people who thought she was bad; or, for older kids, about Mindy in the boutique with Chad, or about some narcissistic troubled teenager and his more appalling mother. There is no prison like a book.
Farley Mowat ends his story with Mutt’s death, by truck. There is nothing saccharine about it, no plea for animal rights, no soul of Mutt in heaven or borne upon the breath of Grandmama Wind; no smug reflection on how much he, Farley, derived from this surprisingly intelligent creature. No book for children could now end thus, with its manly facing up to real and irretrievable loss:
It rained that night and by the next dawn even the tracks were gone, save by the cedar swamp where a few little puddles dried quickly in the rising sun. There was nothing else, save that from a tangle of rustling brambles some tufts of fine white hair shredded quietly away in the early breeze and drifted down to lie among the leaves.
The pact of timelessness between the two of us was ended, and I went from him into the darkening tunnel of the years.
Perhaps that is why the librarians marked it out for Tophet. But no, I know better. This book is too much like life, and, like life, it lay on the shelf. Leave the rest, all ye tempted to read, and take down that one. You never know what its Author will do.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.