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Takahisa Honda

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Why we should still read books

Takahisa Honda
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: French Literature

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Drifting away from books: 40% of university students don’t read

According to a broadcast of NHK’s Today’s Close-up program last December, a study by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs revealed that 47.5% of us do not even read one book a month, while four in ten university students say they do not read books at all. Twenty years have passed since the internet became an everyday part of our lives, and we now rely on it to give us virtually free access to massive amounts of information—or at least the essential points—and this development has left books in the dust. I certainly benefit personally from the convenience of the internet, which offers access to some public domain books online and it makes it easy to search for academic papers.

That said, the fact that there is still a massive amount of content that can only be read in books and other print media is important. As long as we remember this critical point, we don’t have to be too pessimistic about the decline of books—as we are simply replacing the information we no longer get from them with information from other sources.

Is reading books a waste of time?

When it comes to the study of letters, however, the process of reading books—whether works of literature or literary criticism—is essential. When seen in this light, the fact that university students are moving away from books is a thorny issue that rocks the foundation of what literature studies are all about. It takes a serious amount of time to read through an entire book. Can we really get enough out of doing it to make it worth our time? If we only value efficiency, profitability, or the final results, reading books inevitably begins to look like taking the long way around (and therefore a wasteful activity). If we approach it this way, we’ll avoid long books and be satisfied with simply getting our hands on some summaries or presentation materials that extract the essential information.

Is it possible to understand ten things by hearing one?

There is no denying that timesaving summaries make life much easier. But we should be cautious in taking the lesson in the Japanese adage ichi wo kiite ju wo shiru. Literally “hear one thing, understand ten,” it is used to describe someone with a sharp and perceptive mind. What is important is to know that we cannot understand “one” without understanding “ten.” A summary is like getting bones with most of the meat trimmed off. That’s why it is important to have a desire and to flesh it out and achieve it when we encounter a summary, we have a desire to flesh it out—that we want to make it full and real. This process must be backed not only by our imaginations but by actual experience and practice. Real-world experiences sometimes serve as the catalysts that lend meaning to bare bone outlines.

My contention is that reading books can sometimes serve as a real-world experience in itself. In other words, if you include in the term “reading” the whole process of understanding what words mean, using words to communicate our understanding to others, and creating a shared recognition, that becomes a real-world experience. It’s certainly not an easy process. When we try to do it in a foreign language, we’re immediately faced with questions that would put anyone’s mind to the test. What really constitutes comprehension? What does it really mean to communicate? With what can another person understand us? And it’s no different with our native language. Universities are one setting in which we must go through these frustrations and challenges.

The meaning and importance of studying literature

Lately, I can’t help but feel that the humanities in general and literature studies in particular have come under intense fire. With the state expecting that universities offer professional training that meets modern social demands, the humanities have been left out in the cold. Are academic disciplines that not directly lead to employment inevitably cut back for that reason? I was first made aware of this fundamental issue when I heard Antoine Compagnon, a leading figure in the study of French literature, give a presentation titled “Literature Pays Off” at La Société Japonaise de Langue et Littérature Françaises (SJLLF) in 2012*1. France is also witnessing a move away from the humanities, and what Compagnon emphasized was that literature allows us to know others, and thus understand our world. In addition, he mentioned emerging studies where patients are being asked to tell their stories in medical settings as a supplement to clinical treatments, and where attorneys are being asked to demonstrate effective storytelling skills. From these examples we see that the study of literature is necessary, as it plays a concrete role in a variety of fields.

Literature offers a powerful means of communication

One of the essential prerequisites for these “storytelling techniques” now attracting attention in practical circles is communication. The ability to communicate is more important than ever—and broadly speaking, is exactly the target of literary analysis in which it is reexamined on the letter, word, sentence, and composition (story) level. In other words, it is the study of literature that gives us access to language. Of course, it is natural to emphasize visual elements like gestures and images, since these also powerfully support communication; but human communication could never have come about without words in the first place.

No matter how profound the ideas we want to communicate, not knowing how to get them across only increases our frustration. Literature has addressed this challenge by studying the means of expression themselves through the ancient discipline of rhetoric. It cannot be overemphasized that thanks to rhetoric various achievements of the past have been communicated to us. Modern “storytelling techniques” are nothing more than a reevaluation of this ancient field of study.

Conclusion

Reading is not simply a dry process of collecting information—nor does its truest pleasure lie only in the singular experience of being caught up in the artistry of a literary work. Instead, to read is to experience the process by which content itself is created, and one of the tasks of literature studies is to objectively analyze this process from a higher perspective. In other words, it is to master the skill of creating content by knowing how it develops. This is not just a skill for literary scholars, either; it applies to every human being. It is, I insist, “why we should still read.” And the university, as I have said, is one place where we can still have this experience.

*1^ Reading the September 2012 edition of the Gunzo literature magazine is highly recommended, which features a Japanese translation of Compagnon’s “Literature Pays Off” presentation by Yoshikazu Nakaji.

Takahisa Honda
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: French Literature
Professor Honda was born in Kanagawa Prefecture and graduated from the Faculty of Letters, The University of Tokyo. He studied abroad at the University of Geneva and Paris-Sorbonne University. He received his doctorate in literature studies from Tokyo University and had been an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology at Tokyo University before taking up his current post in 2012. Honda’s primary area of study is French literature and society during the interwar period. He has co-translated François Cusset’s French Theory (NTT Publishing), Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. Quand l’impossible est certain (Chikuma Shobo), and Le Conte populaire francais III (Chuo University Press).