Gilbert: The hazards of reading

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(HOST) This is National Library Week, and since executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council, VPR commentator Peter Gilbert promotes reading, lifelong learning and civic engagement, the advice he provides today may surprise you.

(GILBERT) I want to warn you about something extremely dangerous – reading. It can lead to thinking, and there’s no knowing where that could lead. It can encourage curiosity, and you know what curiosity did to the cat. It can lead to knowledge – even, over time, wisdom, but that won’t get you on the cover of /Rolling Stone/. And it can be fun, but Lord knows, with all the troubles in the world today, levity is the last thing that’s called for.

Let me give you three literary examples of the pernicious effects of reading. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel "Fahrenheit 451" describes a future American society so hedonistic and anti-intellectual that critical thought through reading books is outlawed. If books are discovered, the firemen are called, and the volumes burned. Why? Because reading can be upsetting. Books can introduce you to disturbing ideas; they can challenge the status quo, or even your own convictions. Bradbury said that his novel wasn’t about censorship, but about how television destroys interest in reading and leads to a sense that knowledge is comprised of mere factoids without context or significance.

Bradbury wasn’t the only novelist who knew the dangers of reading. Cervantes, author of the very first novel, /Don Quixote/, knew it too. So I’d say that since Day One, novelists have been putting out products that are inherently dangerous to those who use them. Don Quixote, Cervantes’ comic hero, is, you’ll remember, a bit touched in the head. He mistakes windmills for monsters and his broken down old horse for a noble steed. What turned his head? Reading too many chivalric romances. And so at the beginning of the novel, the curate and barber come into Don Quixote’s library and burn countless volumes of romances.

And speaking of the pernicious influence of romances, Mark Twain absolutely hated Sir Walter Scott, the early-nineteenth-century English author of /Ivanhoe/ and other historical novels that romanticized war and bygone days. Twain thought that Scott had such a large hand in forming the character of Southerners in this country that Scott was in great measure responsible for the Civil War. Twain asserted that "the Sir Walter disease" encouraged the South to be in love with [quote] "dreams and phantoms… with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs… and… chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society" – in love with dueling, inflated speech, and social caste. That’s why, in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", Twain has Huck, who romanticizes robbers and murderers, go on to a wrecked steamboat in the middle of a torrential rainstorm; there he happens upon three real-life robbers and murderers, and he witnesses their stark cruelty and the utter lack of honor among thieves . The name of the wrecked steamboat? "The Walter Scott".

My advice? Stay away from books – they might change your life, and hey, why mess with perfection?

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