Harold Bloom talks about the importance of the reading life in the formation of character. For him, this is done through a lifetime of internal dialogue with oneself, with the characters, ideas, situations and conflicts in novels, plays, poems, short stories and so on. This lifetime of dialogue builds character, broadens horizons, exercises the mind, expands it. It is a key in the formation of our ability to listen to ourselves, listening to others, analyzing that data, looping it back into the ongoing conversation of a lifetime. For him, it is not the slant of the work that does this. It’s the quality. His is an apolitical ideal of the unique power of internal conversation with as diverse a reading life as is possible.
Art, music, crafts, etc.. all have this synergy, but words on the page and in our minds coincide with the structure of our communication vehicle most immediately. Language. Through language, because of language. Studying history teaches us that this thing we take for granted today was not available to the vast majority of human beings until recently. Prior to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439, most people did not read. Most people could not freely select what they read. Most people didn’t know the vast wealth of conversation available to them from across the globe. And even with the invention of the printing press, literacy levels remained much lower than they are today for centuries.
It seems more than a coincidence that, throughout history, literacy levels go hand in hand with the amount of freedom and control the masses have over their own lives, and the amount of control others have over them. Church, state, kings, queens, and rulers of all kinds, across the globe, have a better shot at keeping the populace down and under their thumbs when that populace can’t read . . . or when it has limited access to a wide range of books, ideas, and conversations that transcend time and place. To take this a step further, it is also more than a coincidence that when people limit their own reading to one book, one set of ideas, one ideology, they are less likely to be truly free, regardless of the powers that be in their particular country, empire, region.
Which brings me back to the word, expectations. The tyranny of low expectations is a phrase we bump into now and then regarding a very different topic, but I think it better fits into this one. And those who use it today in that other context, often fall prey to it themselves. To me, what the phrase really means is that our own chance to broaden that internal conversation with the ages and the most diverse minds across the globe is all too often thrown away. Even in this age of vast access to the widest range of literature, theory, history, and information of all kinds, all too many people choose either not to read at all, or seem satisfied with the narrow pursuit of reading narrowly. They succumb to the tyranny of low expectations, and we all suffer because of that. We suffer as a people, because that narrowness of dialogue is repeated in our media, in our political contests, in the range of public conversation. And that in turn limits progress toward what the literacy revolution should actually have accomplished already: An end to the tyranny of all powerful elites.
Expectations. Because I’ve read widely my whole life, because I’ve read a great deal of comparative myth and religion, because I’ve read about various forms of government, the pursuit of empire, war, political corruption, rigid ideologies, crusades drenched in blood and terror, revolutions drenched in blood and terror, I am less likely to fall prey to special pleadings from those who seek to impose their will on us all—yet again. I am less likely to fall prey to rhetoric and propaganda telling us that this or that is the only possible way, be it religion, ideology, political structures, wars, economic visions and so on. The ability to see things whole, from a multitude of perspectives (which also brings modernist art into the conversation), is what reading widely can do, and this in turn should raise our expectations regarding our own role in our own lives.
I think the literacy revolution has stalled. At least here, at least in this country. We need to raise expectations again through a new concerted effort to broaden our internal conversations with the ages and all places. We need to embrace the all through the heightened embrace of the widest range of reading possible.