“Books are to be called for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay – the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-trained, intuitive …”
-- Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas
Since I have long thought of literary reading as an arduous form of exercise, it was inspiring to come across this quote this morning as I prepare to start another year’s worth of strenuous “exercises” with my teenage students. I’m afraid that some of the students who will come to my class next week consider reading a novel to be a sort of “half sleep” process, as Whitman puts it – a way of escaping from all mental labor by drifting off on an entrancing story -- but the reading they will do in my class is more like ascending a sheer mountain than falling into a soothing sleep. In fact, I often use the mountain analogy, reminding the young readers that reaching the vistas at the summit of both great books and great mountains requires punishing work -- the kind of labor set aside only for earnest readers and climbers. They would expect to pay such dues on a mountain ascent, so why not on a climb through the chapters of a Dickens or Morrison novel? I sometimes remind the scholars that they should feel utterly exhausted after reading a chapter in A Tale of Two Cities, just as they should after a serious lacrosse practice. If they feel well rested after either form of exercise, they’re only pretending to be readers and athletes.