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Faryal Shah Monday, August 11, 2008 01:58 AM

'Reading is a lost art'
 
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Reading is an activity that entails more than the mere following of words on a page. Indeed, reading is an art: it involves the mental processing of plot, characterisation and how these aspects come together to convey the intentions of the author. It is also an appreciation of the power of language employed by the author, for language should complement the thematic concerns of the writer. Further, crucial to the definition of reading as an art, is that it must be a pleasurable event, for literature is by its very nature intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Yet, in today's context, perhaps reading is a lost art; when poetry and the novel were at the height of their popularity, the reading of literature was considered the norm. This is reflected by the titles that certain periods have been bestowed with, such as the 17th century's "Age of Reason" where wit was expressed through literature. "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed", said Alexander Pope, a poet of the era. Yet today, other forms of entertainment have replaced reading, such as television. Also, reading has ceased to be an art as defined by the above criteria in modern society. Through an examination of these two points, one can see to what extent has reading become a "lost art".

The advent of television, firstly, has very much displaced reading as a past-time. Unlike literature, television does not require its viewers to undergo any mental thought process pertaining to plot or character. The events in a television programme are fully explained either through the simplistic dialogue or through the visual display of their occurrence. This not only negates the power of language, it strips away the thought process as well as the imagination that one would require if one were reading a novel. Ironically, despite this stupefying effect of television, this is the very reason why reading has become a lost art, for television represents a substitute that does not demand the mentally taxing requirements that reading literature needs. The poet W. H. Auden's words, "poetry makes nothing happen", would thus also be relevant to us today, for no one reads poetry, or any other form of literature, with sufficient art to make anything happen.

Also, even if there are readers around who manage to process what they read with great success, more often than not, reading is a task performed without pleasure. This is due to the fact that the reading of literature, which should be an enjoyable event, has become academised into another sterile erudite subject termed "English". This is the complaint of the late poet Philip Larkin, for such a process undermined the beatific and sublime qualities of literature which are meant to evoke both thought and emotions, not either one or the other. The other side of the coin is likewise demonstrative of how reading has become a lost art: those who actually read and enjoy reading are unable to fully appreciate the technical aspects of the novel or poem that emphasise its content. The irony is that this is the reason for the aforementioned academisation of reading literature, to facilitate for the readers who cannot comprehend authorial technique. The paradox here is frustrating, for how can reading regain its former status of appreciation, given these conflicting scenarios? This points to the truth of the statement, that indeed "reading is a lost art".

Besides, people today are caught up with other everyday concerns that they deem either more practical or more relevant to their lives. Office workers toiling from nine to five are more concerned with meeting deadlines and promotions rather than reading. The hectic urgency of today demands devotion to work in order to survive in a society where "money talks". There is no time for reading. Also, the youth of today do not regard reading literature as relevant to them as there are other modes of relaxation they can greater identify with, such as music. Music has become the art in sync with today's youth (no pun intended): they revere Carlos Santana for his guitar skills, admire Rage Against The Machine for its political statements and daring to proclaim them. Skill and statement, two fundamental qualities of good writing, meant to be appreciated by a reader. Yet, this is an art lost to a people who are either work-driven, or who have found a substitute art to replace reading.

One cannot, however, make a generalised statement that the reading world is completely devoid of anybody who can understand and feel for a piece of prose or verse that he or she comes across. The appreciative skills of these people manifest themselves in the many awards that are given out to notable and outstanding authors and poets, a few of which include the Whitbread and Pulitzer prizes. However, these people are often termed as "literary" by the general public, a titling that suggests a certain elitism, a difference from the rest of the general population around them. This demonstrates that these "literary" persons are merely the remnant who holds on to the art of reading, an anomaly rather than the standard norm. They are holding the fort against the onslaught of modern culture, clinging on to an art essentially lost or dying to the rest of the world.

In the light of these facts, one can conclude that reading is a lost art, or at best, an art that is being eroded away by a variety of factors. Reading has been replaced by television and music, the prestige it once held in centuries past now almost non-existent. Maybe in the future, reading might undergo a revival as an art, or it might remain at its present status, an action that no longer requires thought. The latter prediction is more probable given the present circumstances; still, one might hope that the lost art of reading would not remain lost forever.


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