Illiteracy is not superiority

Recently, I became frustrated with a friend of mine who criticized several works of literature he had never read. Our discussion lead to him admitting, after bashing Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, that he had “only read, like, three pages” of the novel before tossing it aside. The conversation turned to troubles in the Middle East and culminated with a discussion of colonialism, where it came full circle: To the horror of the others in the room, my friend declared that colonialism was very beneficial to the country being colonized. Perhaps, we were quick to point out, if he had actually read Things Fall Apart, he’d have a different point of view.

Since coming to RPI, I’ve heard several of my friends and acquaintances brag about their frequent use of SparkNotes in high school, criticize English classes as too “arbitrary,” and call most writers (and their work) “pretentious.” I’m aware that I attend a polytechnic institute where students are proud of our scientific literacy and not all that concerned with traditional literacy; I’m aware that the school has slashed a significant portion of the Language, Literature, and Communications department. Yet I’m disappointed by how casually my classmates dismiss literature, often with not-so-subtle hints of superiority.

I routinely feel discouraged by the lack of scientific understanding in this country; I’m familiar with the sinking feeling that comes with most commentary on global warming, stem cell research, or nuclear power, as well as depressing statistics about the average citizen’s scientific awareness (only 46 percent know that an electron is smaller than an atom, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science). And I often feel a surge of pride when I think of the people at RPI and how they know better. However, many types of knowledge are crucial to understanding and interpreting the world around us, and science and technology are not the only discipline by which to do this. Being a responsible citizen and an informed human being requires at least a cursory knowledge of the humanities and social sciences, not to mention the critical thinking skills fostered by these disciplines.

Literature is not just a collection of stories for your entertainment, to be taken at face value, nor are most books designed to preach at the reader—yet most people I meet here seem to take one of these positions. Novels, full of those ambiguous and “arbitrary” things like symbolism and themes, are a way of examining the world, of exploring new ideas, of relating insights and experiences. Literature often contains information about events and social situations we have no way of experiencing firsthand, and conveys it in a more intimate, human way than, say, an encyclopedia (okay, Wikipedia) entry. It also relates to the reader opinions, philosophies, and emotions that he hasn’t been exposed to before. A good book can often cause a reader to tackle specific parts of his worldview head-on.

At least a superficial knowledge of influential works is essential to understanding the rhetoric of today’s society. Think about how often you hear references to 1984. Hell, George Orwell’s novels are so culturally significant that “Orwellian” is part of our lexicon, representing the mood of a writer’s entire collection of works. Talk of poverty will often contain some mention of Dickens and that of the Great Depression will cite Steinbeck. And what discussion about the ethics of war can be complete without mentioning Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five? (And if you’re apathetic about these issues, Cat’s Cradle (also by Vonnegut), is a commentary on science and ethics, a crucial topic for scientifically-minded students. Along the same lines, consider Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.)

And this is not all about preaching to the reader, either. Vonnegut, for example, makes an immensely enjoyable read; his books are littered with dark comedy and science fiction and border on absurd. If that’s not your style, Atwood and Orwell’s often-dystopian novels are thrilling. Even the more popular Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have their bit to say about morality. I became more adept at dealing with the darker things in life after exposure to Poe’s spine-tingling stories; less judgmental after Shakespeare’s engrossing plays; more satisfied with my lot in life after McCourt’s depressing yet hilarious tales.

I recognize that many people at RPI are apathetic about politics, and the idea of being pushed to re-examine your philosophy might not have you rushing to the library. But another benefit of spending some time with books is a larger vocabulary and an increasing ability to string words together in a clear and cogent way. As my work with The Poly has taught me, this is not exactly a common skill in the technical world, and an ability to communicate well will be a boon in practically any career you choose to pursue.

Whatever your motivation, I encourage you to pick up a book, and for god’s sake get past Page 3.