Rarely do the sheer power and beauty of language strike the reader of modern works. This is one of the many points made by Robertson Davies in the two essays in READING AND WRITING, delivered as part of the Tanner lectures on human values. Davies’point is made forcefully by the very eloquence of his own writing.
Davies argues that most writers perform their craft poorly, if in fact they even perceive it as a craft rather than as a chore. He attributes the lack of craftsmanship to the fact that writers copy what they read, and that much of what they read is, as he says, “cheap.” Readers have learned to rush through prose to get to the message of a written work, rather than slowing to admire the quality of writing and to analyze what is written. Speed reading comes naturally because most people have far too much to read, and much of what they read is dross in the form of reports, solicitations, or shoddy writing that attempts to pass itself off as literature. Reading for message or story makes sense for that material. Davies believes that readers must, however, take the time to truly read those works that are truly written, written with a sense of craft, with attention to nuance and flavor of language. Contrary to the tenets of much instruction in reading, Davies argues that readers should “verbalize” the written word, reading slowly enough to hear the words spoken in their heads.
READING AND WRITING reminds the reader that reading a work of quality is a pleasure, and as Davies reminds his audience, reading should be first and foremost a pleasure. The eloquence of Davies’prose prompts appreciation of writing done well; his message is that much writing is done poorly, leading to depreciation of the art of reading. Davies has much to say, even in these few pages, about the lack of quality in writing of all types and the reasons for it. Aspiring writers will be disappointed with his message that good writing cannot be taught, that a skilled writer must be born to the art. Surely, however, the appreciation of the literary arts likely to be prompted by contemplation of Davies’ work will inspire writers to greater efforts.