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«THE TANNER LECTURES HUMAN VALUES ON Delivered at Yale University February 20-21, 1991 ROBERTSON DAVIES received his B.Litt. degree from Balliol ...»

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Reading and Writing




Delivered at

Yale University

February 20-21, 1991

ROBERTSON DAVIES received his B.Litt. degree from Balliol

College, Oxford, in 1938. After gaining experience as an

actor, teacher, editor, and publisher, he was appointed

Visiting Professor at Trinity College, University of To-

ronto, 1960-62. In 1963 he earned an appointment as Master of Massey College, Toronto. Professor Davies has had dozens of articles and three books internationally pub- lished and translated. Many of his play performances have received awards. Along with many other esteemed awards, he was the first Canadian to be elected an Honorary Mem- ber of the American Academy & Institute of Arts and Let ters.

I. READING There was a day when, if I were asked to give a lecture, I would search for some recondite subject on which I would be able to amaze my hearers and add to my reputation as a man of wide and various knowledge. But as time passes I find that either my hearers are growing wiser or I am growing stupider, and the like- lihood that I can astonish them becomes more and more remote.

So when I was asked to give the Tanner Lectures I decided that my best plan was to talk about things that everybody knows and attempt to stir up some discussion which would give the really clever ones a chance to show their strength. That is why my lec- tures bear the simple titles, “Reading” and “Writing.” Every one of you, I am sure, reads and writes, and some of you do so professionally. That means, in our time, simply that you are paid to do it, and not that you are necessarily greatly gifted at those pursuits. Professionalism as applied to reading and writing is a subject on which I shall have some rather severe things to say, because I think the word professional is misleading and exerts a bad influence. I shall tell you why later. At the moment we must talk a little more of the actual words reading and writing and perhaps agree about what they mean.

Most people on this continent can read and write in some degree, though the number of those who cannot is disgracefully large. An astonishing number of those who can read and write think that they do so rather well. I spent twenty years as a jour- nalist, and I met all kinds of men and women who prided them- selves on what they called their “communication skills’’; they would tell you, with an unconvincing show of modesty, that they thought they could write “a pretty good letter.” It was my duty as as editor to deal with their pretty good letters, and I never [ 61 ] The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 62 ceased to be astonished at how badly people expressed themselves who did well in the world as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and the like. When they were angry theyseemed unable to focus their anger; they roared like lions, and like lions they roared on no identifiable note. When they wished to express grief they fell into cliché and trivialized their sincere feeling by the awful prose in which they expressed it. When they were soliciting money for charity, they pranced and cavorted in coy prose, or else they tried to make the reader’s flesh creep with tales of horrors that may have been true but did not sound true. I used to wonder what made them write as they did, and whenever I was able to find out I discovered that it was because of the dreadful prose they read and the way they read it. They admired cheap stuff, they imitated cheap stuff, and they appeared to have no understanding of how they cheapened their own minds and their powers of expression by so doing.

Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best. But God deliver us from contenting ourselves with a steady diet of mediocrity, for it is mediocrity, rather than downright trash, that influences the majority of readers.

Very often nowadays we hear and read the pitiful wails of those who are convinced that reading is in deep decline. They blame television and the movies for this state of affairs. I wonder very often how they square their conviction that nobody reads with the evidence of bookshops everywhere and the proliferation of paperback books which, if not cheap, are at least cheaper than the hardback originals. Most people must be reading or so many books would not be published every year, and it is possible today to be very well read without ever buying a book in hard covers.

The literary community, too, seems to be growing at an astounding pace. Wonderful young new writers are hailed every week by [DAVIES] Reading and Writing 63 eager reviewers. You can hardly throw a stone in the street without hitting somebody who has written a book. People are ready to lay down money in quite substantial sums to listen to authors read, even though most writers are wretched readers. Has there ever been a time when the writer was such a cult-figure as he is today? Every time a writer brings out a book his publishers pay to ship him all over the continent so that people may gaze at him, and marvel at him, and ask for his autograph. Every time a young writer produces something, older writers like myself are entreated to write some words expressive of their awe and delight at the effulgence of his genius. The papers carry news of the large sums that authors are paid as advance fees, sometimes even before they have put pen to paper.

Ah, but there I go, exposing myself as a creature from a bygone age. These new writers do not put pen t o paper– they put forefinger to word processor, the new device which is supposed to take so much of the pain out of authorship. I do not myself use a word processor, because I am what it is now the fashion to call a technomoron. I have no skill with machines. I fear them, and because I cannot help attributing human qualities to them, I suspect that they hate me and will kill me if they can. However, I am here not to expose my ineptitude but to talk about reading.

What I have been suggesting is that there is more reading today than ever before in the history of the world, and that most of it is of no importance whatever.

W e all have to read far too much. Every day the mails bring us handfuls of material, of which some part must be read, or skimmed. If we are in business, or in the academic world, we have to read essays and documents relating to our work. It is unheard of now for a government body to bring out a report that does not run to a thousand pages; nobody can read it all, but many people must read some of it. We have to read countless letters, often simply in order that we may throw them away. W e are deluged with stuff that must be read, and to meet the needs of The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 64 busy people, procedures of speed-reading have been developed which enable anybody who has mastered the trick to grab the contents out of a mass of print without reading it seriously. Very often all the speed-reader gets out of his speed-reading is the intent of the material read: he does not assess its value, nor does he base his opinion of what is said on the way the case is argued.

Indeed, he cannot be said to have read, except in the most superficial sense.

It is unfortunate that this craze to rapid reading has infected the universities, where, if anywhere, careful and considered reading and rereading ought to be the rule. Departments of English provide their students with Reading Lists which explain what writers and what works will be dealt with in particular courses.

It is understood between the students and the faculty that nobody is expected to read all the books on the list; students are asked only to “acquaint” themselves with what is on the list, so they finish

their year’s work with a once-over-lightly acquaintance with a staggering array of masterpieces. I do not complain of this procedure:

I do not even think it of doubtful honesty. I have seen it at work over many years, and it is a fact that students emerge at the end of the year somewhat less illiterate than they were when they went in. Can one reasonably ask for anything better? But has it anything to do with reading?

Of course it can be argued that reading too much is just as pernicious as reading too little. I recall from my undergraduate days a girl who used to moan, when she was slightly drunk: “I’ve read everything on the Senior English course lists, and where has it got me?” What she meant was that her reading had not provided her with beauty, or charm, or sexual irresistibility. That girl had gobbled eight plays of Shakespeare, a play by Ben Jonson, all of Pamela, the whole eight volumes of Clarissa, eight novels by Dickens, one by Thackeray, one by Trollope, a large wodge of Henry James, a substantial vegetarian mass of Bernard Shaw and God knows what else, and at the end of it all her mind was as flat Reading and Writing 65 [DAVIES] as Holland. All she had gained were thick glasses and a bad breath, doubtless the result of literary constipation. I once asked her if she had read Browning’s The Ring and the Book, which was an enthusiasm of my own. She had not. She said it was “not required reading,” and that was that. But T. S. Eliot was required reading, and she had read him to the bone, without any discernible effect. She did not even get a First Class in her finals. She was the most over-read girl I have ever known, but she still said, “Between you and I.” God deliver me from all such.

To speak only for myself, I read a great deal of varied material, including several newspapers. Perhaps because I come of a journalist family, I have never scorned newspapers as many people do. I have long been mindful of the words of Henrik Ibsen, who, when he was asked what he read, replied that he read only the Bible and the daily papers, and there he found everything he needed. And indeed, if you read the newspaper perceptively, you will find the great themes of the Bible, of Homer, of Shakespeare, repeated again and again. When I was a teacher I used to tell my students that if they thought the plot of Othello farfetched, they had only to read the Toronto Globe and Mail any Monday morning to find that the plot had been recreated and reenacted in some suburb over the weekend. It is from newspapers that I collect such information as I have about the supposed present crisis in education. By no means all that is said looks backward to some imaginary time when the world was filled with keen and perceptive readers. I have a clipping of a letter to the Times

of London, in which the writer declares:

Your correspondent of October 15, 1990, bemoans the influence of television, and says it is the task of teachers to teach children to become readers. Surely the task of teachers is to make children more effective and critical users of information from all sources, of which television is one of the most important. I am a book lover; I have acquired many hundreds and written a few. But the day of the printed book which has 66 The Tanner Lectures on Human Values been our staple source of information for 500 years, is now passing. Education must look forward, not back.

It sounds eminently reasonable, does it not? It has that calm, no-nonsense ring which impresses speed-readers. But I think the writer is wrong on several counts. I cannot believe that the day of the printed book is passing. A book is such a convenient object;

you can carry it anywhere. You can go backward in it, and reconsider something that it said yesterday or last week. You cannot do that with television. The book can present


ideas, which television cannot; unless you can take a picture of something, it has no news value for television. Finally, I do not agree that education must look forward at all times; real education looks backward, and gives you a sense of the past against which to measure the present and forecast the future. Television is a good educational tool, but it has its marked limitations. The convenience of the book, as I have described it, will ensure a long life for it, unless we bring up a race that has forgotten how to read.

There are people who declare that we are doing precisely that.

A revealing test was made, several months ago, by an international body which estimated the literacy — in which was included mathematical literacy — of twenty-four of the most advanced countries on earth. Unhappily, your nation (the United States) came twentyfourth on the list. Do not think I am exulting; my country ranked twenty-third. The young people of this continent were found wanting in every important skill — and you will remember that mathematical skills were included. They read badly — which is to say that they could not intelligently relate the content of a paragraph of prose — and they could not express themselves in writing in simple, unambiguous, grammatical sentences. In your country this has caused an understandable uproar, and subsequent investigation has revealed that nearly a million children in the United States graduate from high school every year unable to read at the level expected of eleven-year-olds. Enlightened employers are Reading and Writing [DAVIES] 67 spending heavily on remedial classes for secondary-school graduates. Think of that — the bosses now have to educate the workers because the schools have failed to do so. The New York Telephone Company recently rejected several thousand applicants for a handful of low-level clerical jobs because none could summarize a simple paragraph. When your Scholastic Aptitude Test authorities attempted recently to impress the school authorities with the importance of reading and writing, and attempted to introduce one — only one — compulsory essay as a test of analytical and communicative ability, radical educators, politicians, and other lobby groups protested that such a test discriminated against black and Hispanic Americans and recent immigrants. To put it bluntly, the inabilities of the disadvantaged minorities were to establish the standard for the nation.

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