In 2023, our days are spent staring at screens. A laptop is a necessity for most university students. Assignments, lecture slides, and announcements are all posted on online classroom portals. Outside of academia, a day at work likely entails a day at the computer. Across levels and industries, employees are required to work in front of the pulsating pixels. At the end of the day technology lulls us with more: a new TV series, sports game, movie, or the next level on that video game you’ve been so desperately trying to beat.
The rising digital landscape can leave people wondering — Why read something like literature? What’s the point of it?
This new digital environment can leave us feeling lost and out of touch with reality and senses, overwhelming and inspiring us with all its power.
A reading habit can slow us down. It can give us a break from the sirens of notifications.
Reading Literature Cultivates Consciousness
According to writer, poet, and York University professor B.W. Powe, the question of reading is pivotal. He is the author of 14 books, including The Charge in the Global Membrane and Ladders Made of Water (I highly recommend them).
Powe argues that reading helps us make connections, stating that “it activates the imagination, it activates consciousness, the mind, and the spirit, so that we connect with the words on the page in a way that becomes unique to you. No one reader will ever read a book, a work, a poem, or a story in the same way another will. But we are connecting, as the readers of an open work.”
Richardine Woodall is a professor of English literature at York University, who teaches courses on topics ranging from children’s literature to adaptation. Woodall notes how literature, like all art, offers her far more than utility because it brings her “revelation.”
“This revelation helps me grow. It gives me a deeper insight into myself, into others, and into the world in which I live,” adds Professor Woodall.
Like Powe and Woodall, some York students describe how their regular reading practice expands their knowledge and skills.
Reading Improves Writing
Viresh Ashok is in his third-year studying screenwriting at York University. He illustrates how reading fiction and non-fiction helps him grow his imagination and ideas. Ashok says reading “also helps me connect ideas from my everyday life with stuff that I’ve learned in books.”
Likewise, Raymond Davis is a third-year student studying professional writing and English at York. He notes how “simply reading, enjoying, and analyzing other works can give me a good idea of what works, what doesn’t, and how I can implement these lessons into my own writing.”
Reading Transfers to Other Skills
York University English professor Jacqueline Petropoulos’s take on reading reflects Ashok and Davis’ comments. A published expert in Canadian Drama, she describes how “studying literature develops valuable critical thinking and writing skills that are transferable to many different career fields.”
When asked about the “unproductive or impractical” connotations that reading literature can have, she believes that “the misconception that literary study is unproductive positions us to overlook the very real human, cultural, and political value of the arts and literature that can’t be reduced to its market value in terms of jobs and careers.”
“I’m not suggesting that students should live on books alone, or that they shouldn’t concern themselves with the practical matter of finding jobs, of course. Rather, it is important to view literary study in terms of transferable skills,” Petropoulos adds.
Reading Creates Resilience
Woodall explains how reading literature played a major role in her youth:
In the interview, Woodall prefaced that sometimes children can be your friend one day, and then not your friend the next. During recess in second or third grade, Woodall describes how out of the blue, her friends started calling her a racial slur. This moment was the first time she’d heard something like this.
While at home after her school day, her parents noticed she was upset. After explaining to her father what happened, he came home the following day, with a book by American abolitionist writer, Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery.
After reading Up From Slavery, Woodall felt empowered, stating, “It really doesn’t matter to me what someone calls me…[the book] brought me intellectual power. It brought me strength.” Pointing to her head, she adds, “What’s in here, no one can take from you.
“From the youngest age, I was raised to develop, cultivate, and grow my mind because that’s where my power comes from. That’s where strength comes from. That’s how I can withstand the torrents and struggles of life,” says Woodall.
The Dark Side of Reading
Although this article tends to favour the positive aspects of reading, there are some drawbacks — some more obvious than others. Powe warns us that “reading books doesn’t guarantee enlightenment.”
“Are there works with demonic visions, words that tattoo you with darkness? Can the darkness hover over words? Can people read and miss the course-way of sensual replenishment and expanded consciousness?” asks Powe. “Surely. Deep reading may bring dangers. This is why it’s essential.”
In totality, reading gives us private space to learn, grow, imagine, and expand consciousness in an ever-evolving, technologically-driven society. Reading is not a one-size-fits-all solution — it is a tool.
Or, as Professor Woodall says, “we have a moral responsibility to do the work, and not simply sit back and allow other people to do the thinking for us.
“Literature gives us a perspective, into a different way of thinking.” Excalibur received a short poem from James Clarke, a poet, writer, and retired Superior Court of Ontario judge, from his latest illuminating collection of poems, called The Long Arc of Hope. “Lost Voices” illustrates the loss we can experience from too much technology.
Swept along by
there’s no time
to swaddle the soul
with poetry, read
as though the masters
were still near
waiting in silence
reflect, set aglow
our distracted minds
with radiant words,
no time— for the slow
turning of pages.
— James Clarke