Earlier this month Zack Siegel penned a thoughtful piece on the power of reflection. A call to action, to jettison the phones for prayer, so to speak. He rightly notes the difficulty in summoning up one’s own thoughts and the enervating effect of that omnipresent specter we call Snapchat. He discusses social media as a crutch, and notes that prior generations were essentially forced to think for themselves, having no Facebook on which to fallback. I want to suggest that an excellent crutch, or better yet, springboard for critical thinking is literature, a medium that stretches back to bygone eras, but has not in the least become obsolete.
In a collection of essays titled Life Sentences, the late William Gass describes literature’s vivacity, noting in particular the work of Henry James, and laments “the avid text messaging that now holds so many lines of vapidity open, as a window to a foul smell.” The ubiquity of social media hints at a fascination with gossip, being in the know and not missing out. Such interest is nothing to be ashamed of and is certainly not new; in fact, it is precisely what drives the plot in so many excellent novels. The danger lies in the superficiality of tweets and posts and snapchats. While perhaps intended to serve as a springboard toward finer material, social media has quickly become this sort of quicksand in which too many drown.
As Siegel notes, “we are constantly thinking, but not truly reflecting.” I suppose we could quibble over whether or not the content discussed over social media even qualifies as thinking, let alone reflection, but the important distinction being drawn is that between superficiality and depth. Novels offer a level of depth that engages the mind and provides fodder fertile for reflection; rumination replete with chocolates to be chewed, never to lose their flavor.
Now that the political campaigning is over, I suggest we all take a breathe of fresh air, and bask in the aroma of a novelist such as Henry James, an author that can induce far more pleasure than any silly snapchat, although I would have to consult a neuroscientist as to whether the reading of James releases dopamine. I would go so far as to say that an indulgence in good literature might even lead to a demand for excellent statesmanship, as opposed to the musty state of affairs in which we currently find ourselves drenched. The best of literature is fecund not only for reflection, but also action. Words still have meaning, and language can still inspire, but we must treat our language with the delicacy it deserves if we wish to even get a whiff of the roses.
Paul D. Schreiber Class of 2010 Commencement Speaker