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I don't agree with the statement quoted from "The Verger," but I don't entirely disagree either. I find it a little odd that a man like Somerset Maugham who spent his life writing stories, novels, and nonfiction should assert, through one of his characters, that "young fellows" spend too much time reading," but I can also understand why it might be exactly such a professional writer who could get sick and tired of words and wonder, at least occasionally, whether they actually mean anything and whether they do any good.
I am reminded of a myth related by Socrates in Plato's famous dialogue Phaedrus. According to Socrates the father of written letters was an old Egyptian god named Theuth. He brought his invention to Thamus, the king of Egypt, and explained how he believed it would benefit mankind. But Thamus, no doubt speaking Socrates' own opinion, was not impressed, as is shown in the following quotation from the dialogue:
And you now, the father of written letters [Theuth], are led by your affection to ascribe to them [written words] a power exactly the reverse of what their tendency is. The result of your invention will be this: in the souls of those who learn it, forgetfulness will have lodging through a want of cultivation of the memory; they will trust to writing, a thing outside themselves, and effected by external characters, and hence will not remember of themselves and from within. The elixir you have found is not an aid to memory, but to reminiscence. You provide your pupils with the show of wisdom, not true wisdom. Through you they will learn many things without instruction, and will hence appear to have much knowledge while for the most part they are ignorant, and hardly to be endured because they are grown seeming wise instead of wise.
Shakespeare's Hamlet seems like a good example of a young man who has overindulged in reading. He is fluent in at least half a dozen languages, including Latin and Italian. Shakespeare seems to be implying that Hamlet's addiction to reading has caused mental confusion which makes it impossible for him to act decisively in the real world--a world which he discovers is not the same as the world described in books. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, the reply is revealing of Hamlet's changing attitude towards reading. He says:
Words, words, words.
Words are not things but reminiders of things, or "aids to reminiscence," as Socrates says. We cannot understand a word unless we already know the thing the word represents.
There are a lot of men like Maugham's Albert Edward Foreman who have little book-learning but plenty of worldly wisdom obtained through intelligent observation of the real world. Maugham intentionally shows that Foreman got the idea of opening a tobacco store from experience and observation. He wanted to buy some cigarettes and couldn't find a shop.
"I can't be the only man as walks along this street and wants a fag," he said. "I shouldn't wonder but what a fellow might do very well with a little shop here. Tobacco and sweets, you know."
Foreman's illiteracy might not be a bar to financial success, but it would be a barrier to social success, as is the case with so many self-made American businessmen. Foreman, and his wife, seem content to lead lives not much different from those they led when he was only a verger. He is not like Moliere's Bourgeois Gentleman or William Dean Howell's Silas Lapham, and certainly not like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gould Gatsby.
In the context of the story, it's hard to disagree with the statement. After all, here is a guy who is being thrown out of his job for no other reason than his illiteracy. He has been doing the job well for a long time so there is no reason to get rid of him -- even the vicar admits that.
To me, we in the modern day can see this as something of a commentary on our system. We try so hard to send people to college even if they are not really interested in jobs that need a college education. Maybe we need to see things in a more sensible light -- maybe we need to stop asking for academic credentials (reading) as a qualification for jobs where common sense (doin') is more important.
There are really two answers to this question. In the context of W. Somerset Maugham's short story "The Verger," reading does seem lessproductive than "doin' something useful." Foreman has been doing his rather pedantic and homely duties at the parish church for twenty years, and he loves what he does. When a new priest comes to the parish and discovers Foreman cannot read, the verger is forced to leave. He goes on, of course, to be a practical and prosperous businessman. This is a man who is successful at two diverse careers without being able to read.
In the context of life, reading does seem to be more important. There are certainly limitations when one cannot read, and there is knowledge to be gained by being able to read. In the end, though, reading is not an equal substitute for doing.
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