Read on

An ode to the printed page

As modern teachers of modern tongues, we duly emphasize the spoken word. We also want our students to be able to produce a written text that, to the eyes of a native, has an air of authenticity. And yet, despite all this, the greatest gift that is ours to give is an emphasis on thoughtful reading. More than any other factor, this is what defines the major you have just completed.

Why then sing its praises in these next five minutes?

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Because in the world beyond our gates, the notion of reading as a spontaneous and vital activity has come under stress. Homogenization is everywhere. Independent bookstores are nearly a thing of the past. Venerable publishers are gobbled up each year by multimedia giants. American university presses give increasingly short shrift to fundamental research, particularly in the humanities, and are engaged in a mad quest for academic blockbusters.

Although rich vestiges of material culture happily survive from the past, the human record per se—and the history of our interpretation of that record—are preponderantly conveyed in written form. To lose our sense of the centrality of reading is thus to lose touch with ourselves.

Naturally wedded to silence and the inner life, books stand in contrast with the captivating technological devices that surround us.

Yet the book itself is a perfect piece of technology, perfect for use in the most varied circumstances. Unlike its predecessor, the scroll—indeed, far better than the webpage, that electronic descendant of the scroll—it offers an easy retrospective glance at what has just been read and a pleasant, furtive look at what’s to come. It is, in most cases, effortlessly hand-held: Cultures such as that of France have long given thought to the production of books that easily lie open in a single hand. This was perhaps a concession to the French love for the cigarette, which could then be held by the other hand. But it also proclaims the natural friendship between the human being and the printed page.

Reading brings us directly into contact with another sensibility, another point of view. As a medium, it shapes the imagination but does not dictate to it. On the contrary, it requires imaginative participation if it is to be effective at all.

Children take naturally to reading, but they need exposure to it. To read aloud to a child is to create a kind of sacred triangle consisting of the book, the reader and the listener. It offers opportunities for the deepening of the bond between two individuals and between child and book. Repeat this scenario on the grand scale, and you will have affected the future of the world.

To indulge in a generality: Video, in a sense, possesses us. Reading engages us.

A recent study revealed that watching significant amounts of television not only fails to help children develop the eye movements necessary for effective reading, it actually inhibits the development of these crucial muscular movements.

Tired Americans may turn to television as a means of relaxation. Yet another study showed that although by conventional measures the subjects were indeed relaxed while watching television, the experience left them more distracted and more agitated than before. How different the reward of those who relax with a book!

For many of you, love of the written word conditioned the selection of a major. All of you, I hope, have grown in this dimension in the last few years. One of the best ways to expand one’s knowledge of a foreign tongue—and even of the finer points of grammar—is to read for pleasure in that language. Invariably, those of my students who best master the art of bilingual translation are those who have read most broadly in both of the languages concerned.

The faculty’s encouragement of reflective reading is a great gift. Throughout the coming decades, you will have the chance to share it—some of you chiefly with those closest to you, others in far-reaching ways. In every case, the gift is crucial for the deepening of the spirit and for meaningful engagement with the world.

Thoughtful reading is, after all, one of the paths to fulfillment—and human fulfillment is what your professors and your parents wish for you with all their heart.

Members of the Class of 2005, as you emerge from your college years, be thoughtful, be joyful, think kindly of Tufts. Read on! And fare ye well.

Vincent Pollina is an associate professor of French and Italian. He gave this address to language degree recipients in the School of Arts and Sciences during commencement ceremonies on May 22.