Articulate Speech — Why Great Books Matter

Photo: BBC

My AP English language course, teacher, and textbook taught me invaluable content and skills—the basics of crafting an argument and textual analysis—that I use every day as both a graduate student and lover of news, culture, and politics. However, the lesson that has stuck with me came expressed in a passing comment from our teacher.

Shortly before my peers and I were to sit for our high school AP English Language exam, my classmates made frequent trips to Barnes and Noble, purchasing every workbook they could find to then spend hours studying, scribbling, rereading, and practicing. However, one student did none of that. In fact, many of us were quite bothered by our classmate’s apparent calmness before the test. 

Hearing our concern, my teacher chimed in: “He really doesn’t have much to worry about; he reads.” And so if there is one lesson I learned from my high school English teachers it was this; being well-read will give a person a magisterial grasp over language, and it is through language that we change the world.

My generation’s relationship with reading is about as positive as an atomic electron. There is no hiding behind the vast amounts of literature that show the decline in literacy among American children and teens. Recently, Chalkboard Review ran a fantastic piece by Carolina Simon explaining how the decline of literacy has resulted in students’ inability to analyze texts and ideas, and how students have failed to graduate onto more complex books and novels. Here is one frightening passage from her article:

The necessity of ‘relatable’ curricula has been a driving force within the child literacy field for at least 15 years. Supposedly, students will only understand what they read if the stories feature characters and plots that resemble their own lives. This means that black inner-city students will only be able to understand a story if that story is about a black inner-city child. Interestingly, this same theory does not push for suburban white students to only read stories of white suburban kids.

In and of itself, this is relatively innocuous. The real problem is that this new urban fiction that is being championed as the replacement of our classical texts do not contain the same level of text complexity. It is not that Mark Twain is being replaced with Maya Angelou or Zora Neale Hurston. That’s a fine trade-off. It is that Mark Twain and Angelou and Hurston are being replaced with young adult fiction.

The question of “relatable” books and texts warrants its own separate discussion, but at its core, I believe the issue so many of my generation have with “unrelatable” books is that they only see half of their importance. Surely, many might have a hard time connecting to Oliver Twist; we can’t appreciate the hardships of an early 19th century English boy, living a life in dark and dirty factories. Nonetheless, students learn valuable lessons in reading books like Oliver Twist: being exposed to great writing will enhance one’s grasp of language, more so than any AP English Language workbook.

When this more important aspect of reading is forgotten, that great books expose students to great language, many turn away from them; these books appear not only unrelatable but impractical too. “Why should I bother reading fiction,” argues the finance major, “if it has no practical relevance to my life or career?” 

This attitude is surely misguided. The budding investment banker must certainly realize that securing a new client requires more than a data point reflection of his ability to invest money. He needs language and rhetoric. The greatest banker will lose employment if he can never compel a customer to accept his services. Thomas Jefferson would be a blotch on the canvas of history had he not been able to formulate his thoughts into the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln invested in books to overcome his humble beginnings and become the master orator and writer that he was. It is the strategic use of language that makes all the difference.

And this is how literature provides its return on investment. By reading great books, we subconsciously familiarize ourselves with great grammar, sentence structure, and prose. Through these books, we learn from the masters how to express ideas. The great writers allow us entry into their innermost chambers, letting us experience their ability to manipulate our logos, ethos, and pathos

Is there anyone who puts down Oliver Twist and doesn’t come away with not only sympathy but also a desire to reform the plight of the 19th-century worker? Are there people who aren’t convinced of the dangers of a world like the one Winston inhabits in Orwell’s dystopian nightmare? Students should be taught that the great writers are teaching us how to articulate ideas in ways that all the workbooks in a bookshop simply cannot. These lessons are relevant to both the future author and engineer.

The great British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton once commented that:

I suspect that the increasing inarticulateness of the young, their inability to complete their sentences, to find telling phrases or images, or to say anything at all without calling upon the word “like” to help them out, has something to do with the fact that their ears are constantly stuffed with cotton wool.

Although Sir Roger made this comment in reference to the state of pop music in the modern era, I imagine he too would agree that the apathy my generation has towards literature contributes to the inarticulateness of the young. So many of my peers receive their exposure to language on social media sites, where individuals hope to score the most likes and retweets by expressing witty one-liners and half-baked thoughts. Ideas that can be distilled into 140 characters are almost always gilded in nature. The antidote is undoubtedly great books.

It is hard to define what it means to be well-read. A proper definition is quite elusive. It doesn’t depend on “books read per year” or “genres explored,” and yet we all know a well-read person when we see one. We can discern well-read individuals not because they blab on about books, but rather because they are articulate; they express their thoughts with a clear command of language.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying that the man who doesn’t read has no advantage over one who can’t. Both lack the tools to express their thoughts and ideas in an articulate fashion. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Curricula ought to be constructed to teach not only literary interpretation and analysis but also the benefit of reading as the prime approach to articulate speech and thought.


Philip Dolitsky
Phillip Dolitsky is a graduate of Yeshiva University and is currently pursuing a masters degree at the School of International Service at American University.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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