Method to the Madness

Here’s my latest monthly neighborhood newsletter column.

It is one of my favorite scenes in my favorite play of Shakespeare. In Act II Scene 2, Polonius asks Hamlet, “What do you read, my lord?” With a touch of snark, Hamlet replies, “Words, words, words.”

I often reflect on Hamlet’s response because I feel inundated with words in my daily life. Hundreds of emails appear in my inbox. I need to write my sermon, update my blog, and respond to other correspondence. Then there is the advertising. On average, we receive over nine thousand messages a day, many of them are advertisements. How can we possibly cope with all these words?

What’s happened, I sense, is that we have stopped reading what really matters. We are so overwhelmed with meaningless words that we do not stop to reflect on words that do have meaning. The craft of writing and reading the essay and novel are on life support.

For instance, a young woman in our parish is about to graduate from high school. She told me that she feels called to be a writer. “Fantastic!” I said, with a good deal of exuberance, “William Faulkner is my favorite writer! Who’s yours?” With a puzzled look, she sheepishly asked, “who’s William Faulkner?”

I could sit at my desk and skewer any number of institutions or societal factors for her ignorance. I could blame Twitter and its insistence on brevity. I could point the finger at the new, hybrid dialect of English we use for texting. Or, perhaps I should say that the school system is at fault. 

Yet that is not the truth of the matter. It is our own cowardice that is to blame. I believe that we no longer have the courage to read the words that really matter. As a society, we are generally more likely to flip through the mindless pages of “People” magazine than we are to pick up Faulkner, Bronte, Eliot, or Chabon. It all comes down to the fact that the nine thousand message we receive every day do not challenge us and we like it that way. We would rather not be confronted with disturbing images or stories with raw power and emotion. Books like “The Orphan Master’s Son” or “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” (both recent Pulitzer Prize winners) might challenge our previously held prejudices and assumptions, so instead we dull our senses with yet another edition of “Entertainment Weekly.”

I believe that we all need a heavy dose of courage. We need courage to pick up a book, even though it might rattle us. Sure, it might look like madness to be reading books in our digital age. So we return once again to Polonius’ conversation with Hamlet: “though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

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