The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Please Don’t Extinguish All Reading Materials

February 20, 2009
Washington, DC

"What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself?

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope." -- Wallace Stegner

Quoting Wallace Stegner on an NEA blog may seem disrespectful both to him and to my employer, since Stegner turned down our National Medal in the late 1980s as a protest against the politicization of the arts. On his 100th birthday, though, I?m inclined to risk it.

Stegner, for any unfortunates just making his posthumous acquaintance now, was a renaissance man in an era of specialization. Born in Saskatchewan in 1909, he grew up in Utah and Montana, and spent much of his working life in Los Altos Hills, California, near Stanford. On that campus he founded the post-baccalaureate creative writing program that bears his name, which has been turning out fine writers from Ken Kesey to Larry McMurtry to Edward Abbey for nigh on half a century. A career full of books also carry Stegner?s byline -- prize-winning cranky novels like Angle of Repose, invaluable Western histories like Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, and a shelf of environmental writing to rival John Muir's.

I read a hunk of the essay quoted above to our Readers Circle member Maureen Corrigan?s "Public Intellectuals" class yesterday at Georgetown, and it worked me over as it never had before. The passage comes from what?s now known as "The Wilderness Letter," a note Stegner dashed off to a wildlife biologist in 1960 about the inherent value of undomesticated places. The letter went viral before anybody knew what that meant, affecting American conservation policy ever since, and even now cropping up everywhere from Sierra Club posters to Timothy Egan's current Stegner appreciation in the New York Times.

The Stegner line that jumps out at me now is this: "What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself."

As I was reading this aloud to a roomful of Maureen's smart college students (and unwitting NEA intern candidates), it hit me that what Stegner says about wilderness rings equally true of his other profound love, namely literature. Plugging that new variable into Stegner?s equation, we get this: "What I want to speak for is not so much literature's uses, valuable as those are, but the literature idea, which is a resource in itself."

Here at The Big Read, we can quote you study after study demonstrating that reading literature is good for you. Compared to the alternative, reading tends to keep you employed, out of jail, going out to plays and concerts and sporting events, and just basically a nicer person to be around. And a good thing too, because them that reads may even be around roughly seven years longer than them that don?t.

Not only is reading good for you, it?s good for you even if your next-door neighbor does it and you don?t. The more your neighbor reads, the more he?ll volunteer and vote, too. That?s not just good for him. It?s good for everybody who lives anywhere near him.

Reading, then, resembles a healthier version of smoking. It has direct effects on the people who do it, but life-altering indirect effects too, even on folks just nearby. So the next time a nonreader notices a higher quality of life, he can thank his literate neighbors for the positive benefits of second-hand reading.

Got that? Good. Now forget all about it, and remember Stegner. Because even if reading had no such side benefits -- even if it gave you bad breath, ruined your complexion, rotted your teeth -- it would still be an indispensable part of what makes us human, or at least humane. Reading triggers empathy. It connects us to lives we wouldn?t otherwise know.

Don?t kid youself, though. Reading doesn?t guarantee your humanity. History can show us plenty of literate sinners, even a few monsters. But if there?s an illiterate saint out there, I never heard of him.