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Reading Ain't Thinking

10/08/08 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(HOST) Commentator Deborah Luskin once thought that she would become a college professor. But she found life in Vermont more compelling than a tenured position - and work as scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council richly rewarding.

(LUSKIN) In graduate school, I worked my way through Elizabethan Drama, the British Novel and the Romantic Poets at the rate of two to three books a day. I read innumerable critical works as well. I spent most of my days reading. Occasionally, I'd come up for air to meet with the professor directing my graduate work.
I remember well one overcast, autumn day. I arrived in his cluttered office. The place appeared dim; it's quite likely the windows hadn't been washed since the publication of George Eliot's Middlemarch, in 1874. The professor sucked on his pipe as he listened to me recite the titles of my week's reading, and then, in a grand puff of smoke, cleared his throat and said, "Reading ain't thinking, you know."
This is the sort of enigmatic education one receives in a prestigious Ivy League graduate program where, in return for a job teaching insolent freshmen (Columbia didn't go co-ed until 1983), one receives just enough cash to stay marginally housed and fed.
I understood what the guy meant: he wanted me to write, proving I could not only read but think. So write I did. I wrote a dissertation and received my PhD, which is like being admitted to a highly secretive club of pipe-smokers who spend their days in book-strewn offices with dirty windows.
This pretty well describes my current office, except for the pipe-smoke - and the eighteen-year old male students. I've been fortunate to find a job teaching literature to a much wider, more interesting audience: I teach ordinary Vermonters - life long learners from all walks of life who like both to read and to think.
We can read till the cows come home, but to make reading meaningful, we need to think about it.
Vermonters who attend Reading & Discussion programs at their local libraries know this. That's why they come. While reading is something we each do alone, thinking is something we need to do together. At libraries around the state, neighbors come together with a Vermont Humanities Scholar to think through what it is they've read, to discover and clarify what it is they think.
Sometimes, readers come in with questions and uncertainty, and sometimes, readers come in with attitude. As a scholar, I always hope for a mix of both. And if we have a really good discussion, those with questions leave with a little more certainty, and those with attitude leave with a little less. Everyone gains.
These Reading and Discussion Program started in Rutland thirty years ago this month. It was such a success that the American Library Association received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to go national. These programs are still going strong - not only in Vermont, but in all fifty states, and in thirteen countries around the world. Sending scholars into the field and using literature to start important conversations about difficult issues among the reading public is now a tradition of intellectual freedom exported from right here, in Vermont.
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