For the New Year, Give Yourself Gift of Reading

Most of the folks I know wish they had more time to read—or could make more time. 

We all know reading’s good for us—like broccoli—and some even enjoy it.  Those of us who are parents often hear about the importance of reading aloud to our children:  how just twenty minutes a day can encourage them to love reading themselves (one of the biggest predictors of academic success).  And current research suggests that staying intellectually active—particularly in linguistically complex ways—can help stave off Alzheimer’s. 

But it’s official:  fewer than half of us read literature, and rates are declining.  A 2004 report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) based on Census Bureau information from 2002 indicates that during the course of a year, just 46.7% of U.S. adults had read any fiction, poetry, or plays.  Only 56.6% had voluntarily read a book of any sort—including how-to manuals.

Why does this matter?  For one thing, reading enriches our individual lives, our mental worlds.  But literary reading also correlates strongly to various forms of civic participation such as volunteer work, visiting museums, and attending public sporting events.  Readers tend to be more involved citizens.

As NEA Chairman Dana Gioia points out, "Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life."  Not only a private pleasure, reading encourages us to broaden our involvement as members of a shared community.  "To lose this human capacity—and all the diverse benefits it fosters," argues Gioia, "impoverishes both cultural and civic life."  

Our community has moved in a terrific direction by making a commitment to what will soon be an outstanding new library.  At a time when other libraries around the country have shut down due to lack of support, our gorgeous building—placed front and center on our main thoroughfare—will serve as a community center for research, intellectual inquiry, and reading for pleasure, as well as other kinds of civic activities.

Why not jump-start your own reading and community involvement? 

Wabash is again offering its course Cultures and Traditions (C&T) to the community, a faculty-led opportunity to read and discuss great texts in the company of your friends and neighbors. 

Described by former participants as "rewarding and enjoyable," an "excellent town-gown program" that is "intellectually stimulating for the Crawfordsville community," C&T for Crawfordsville has been taken by retirees, stay-at-home parents, employed adults from all walks of life, and even the occasional high school student seeking extra enrichment.  Family members and best friends have signed up together.

It’s completely free:  even the textbooks are provided.   Discussions are led in a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere by three experienced Wabash professors who volunteer their time because they care about Crawfordsville and believe in education and civic involvement.  Although the curriculum is identical to the one at Wabash, it’s a not-for-credit opportunity, so there are no exams and no papers to write:  just reading and discussion.

"I am astounded that we did not have to pay anything for this course," wrote one participant, adding, "It was too good an opportunity to pass up."

The intellectual benefits are many.  "It stimulated my thinking," wrote one retiree.   Another participant agreed: "I loved the chance to become familiar with these classic texts—something I would not have done on my own.  Also, many times when I read something, I felt I didn’t get too much understanding—but after the professor led discussion, a whole new understanding opened up."  

It has social and civic benefits, too.  "It was fun to get to know some other adults better whom I hadn’t known before and to hear the different thoughts we brought to the table based on our diverse ages and experiences," wrote one woman who took the course.

Another participant agreed that "the sharing of knowledge . . . between people not previously known and from diverse backgrounds," was helpful in seeing the readings "from several perspectives.  And that’s very good."

The spring semester focuses on the Industrial Revolution, historical and contemporary Mexico, Mexicans in the U.S., and the African-American experience.  We’ll read excerpts from historical and philosophical texts as well as literary classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, William Blake’s poems, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

These readings invite us more deeply into the world, delivering us to times and places different from our own but populated by humans akin to ourselves, facing problems that resemble our own—violence, loss, poverty, injustice, arrogance, greed, tragedy—and celebrating beauty, love, nature, kindness, friendship, and the nobility of struggle in hard circumstances. 

They’re still relevant today.  "There have been several things that just pop up in everyday life that went along well with the readings," one participant commented.  Another wrote, "It is amazing how the subjects we discussed were, many times, current to what is going on in the world today." 

Another participant noted, "After once reading an author or hearing about a character, I tended to notice it in many places—when before it would have gone unnoticed, or some classic reference would not have been understood." 

"The urgent need for mankind to help one another become kind men," concluded one retiree, "always comes to the fore in free-thinking study. We can see from these C&T sessions that this need is universal and timeless." 

This new year, why not give yourself the gift of motivation?  

C&T for Crawfordsville classes will be held from 5:20 to 6:10 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, beginning January 12 and ending April 29 (with a week off in March for spring break).  On-campus parking within a short walking distance will be available, and occasional 9:00 a.m. lectures are open to participants but not required.

The class will be capped at 15 registrants; first come, first served.  To register or ask questions, contact coordinator Debbie Bartelt at 361-6290 or 

Joy Castro is an Associate Professor of English at Wabash College. She wrote this column for the Crawfordsville Journal Review.