The Problem with Reading (Thoughts on the Ancient Greeks, Part 3 of 3.)

Posted: March 17, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Remember “The Cosby Show”?  If you are too young to answer in the affirmative, you better go check it out on Netflix or Youtube.  Go now, I will wait…..Okay, now that you realize what you were missing, did you see (or do you remember) the episode in which Theo and Cockroach need to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth for an English test?  The two boys talk about girls, clothes, sports, cars and music, but they have no desire to read the play.  So, they look for a supposedly easy out.  The slackers attempt to avoid reading Shakespeare by listening to a recorded version of the play instead.  They get the recorded album (it is the 80’s remember) of Macbeth from the library; they think listening to it will allow them to avert hard-work.  To their disappointment, they find it is not simple to listen to Shakespeare.  With the album of Macbeth out of the picture, the boys stumble upon “Cleland Notes” that provide a quick summary of the tragedy.   Have a look at a couple classic scenes:

“The Cosby Show” always had a lesson.  This episode obviously was attempting to tell kids that hard work (like reading Shakespeare) would pay off, and trying to get around it by doing something easier would come back to haunt you, like a ghostly blood-stained dagger. The show’s moral could be stated even more bluntly: Reading is good.  Don’t avoid it.  Just do it.  Cockroach and Theo need to learn this the hard way. They likely fail the English test.

Who would disagree with this moral? In our society, most parents stand with Cliff and Claire Huxtable, arguing that reading is an absolute good; always the best learning methodology.  But, these arguments don’t hold water. We don’t live in a world of absolutes, and reading is not always a complete good.  The two boys are right.  Reading ‘The Bard’ can be a chore. On the other hand, watching and listening to Shakespeare is unforgettable.

Dear reader, you must understand that I am a bibliophile extraordinaire.  If I have free time, I read books.  I read on the train; in between classes; before bed; with my morning coffee. I love reading.  It is my hobby; my passion.  I agree with Cliff and Claire Huxtable’s unstated moral: Reading provides enjoyment, intellectual stimulation and self-betterment. But, there are just certain things that should be heard, seen or experienced, and not read.  Sit down and read Sophocles to yourself; then listen to or watch Oedipus the King.  The difference is staggering.  Reading the words provides beauty, but watching the tragedy performed is incomparable.

51noqEetVvL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_This topic is on my mind because I am teaching at a branch campus this quarter, and hence, I am in the car for a couple hours a day. When in the car, I listen to audiobooks to pass the time. I would initially grab audiobooks dealing with my preferred topics of study: History, psychology, philosophy.  I found that these books were good reading, but poor listening.  So, a couple weeks ago, I went with something more exciting. I grabbed the 11 CD audiobook of The Odyssey by Homer as read by Sir Ian McKellen.  Boom! Incredible.

homer

Homer?

This wasn’t my first run-in with Homer.  I read The Odyssey my Sophomore year in college for a Western Civilization course.  Our professor told us on Tuesday to read the 500-plus page epic by that Thursday.  This was ridiculous.  Of course, I read the book as fast as possible, skimming through the ‘unimportant’ parts.  My experience with Telemachus, Circe, Odysseus and the Cyclops was tainted.  Though it has so many recognizable moments, reading the work frantically felt repetitive, and truthfully, boring.

That was 15 years ago. I thought I would give it another go with the recorded version.  Listening to the words, not reading them to myself, clarified the absolute power of Homer’s masterpiece.  The beauty of the language and the psychological introspection of character was magnified ten-fold. Even the repetition (necessary since the work was orally relayed from bard to bard) started to become addictive and beautiful.  Listening to the reoccurring descriptions was a welcome occurrence,  not an annoyance.

The Greeks did not lionize the written word above other methods of pedagogy.  How could they with their cultural inheritance of Homer?  How could they when the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were central to civic life?  How could they when Socrates was questioning Athenians in the Agora?  To be honest, Socrates thought quite negatively of the written word.  He was concerned that reading and writing may ruin the skills of conversation, argument and memory.  In this belief, Socrates was far too radical.  Reading is obviously wondrous.   But, the opposite belief that reading is the only correct way to learn is just as radical, and just as wrong.  Theo and Cockroach had the right idea about that, methinks.

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