Rosenblatt returns to speak on imaginative literacy



He’s back — but this time, he’s alone.

Since he first spoke here in 1985, Roger Rosenblatt has become well known to Chautauqua Institution.

“There is no better place to bring cultural things [than Chautauqua],” Rosenblatt said. Within the last 30 years, he has brought many of them to the Amphitheater stage.

Rosenblatt enters the spotlight again at 10:45 a.m. today to deliver a lecture on imaginative literacy, the second lecture in a week on “21st-Century Literacies: Multiple Ways to Make Sense of the World.”

A distinguished journalist, professor and novelist, Rosenblatt is known for his books, five of which have been chosen for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. In the last seven years, he has also hosted four different “Roger Rosenblatt and Friends” weeks.

His guests have included former poet laureate Billy Collins, novelist Margaret Atwood and journalist Tom Brokaw, among many others.

This week, though, he will be ascending the Amphitheater stage alone to address a topic he has not yet covered — one that he said he is a little unsure of.

“I have no imagination, which is unfortunate as that’s what I’m talking about,” he said.

Despite his claimed ignorance, Rosenblatt has given quite a bit of thought to the topic.

“[Imagination] is a way of seeing what is there, and making something beautiful out of it,” he said. “[Scientists] have found a location in the brain for just about everything we do … except imagination.”

Perhaps, Rosenblatt said, this means imagination is the sum of all the other brain functions; certainly, it seems to be universal in human history, and to work more or less the same way regardless of time.

While the imagination may have more information to work with now than in previous ages, Rosenblatt said it is not all that different from imagination in any other time. So, while the topic of week is “21st-Century Literacies,” he does not plan to only discuss the last decade and a half.

“The 21st century — for me, it’s beside the point,” he said.

Avoiding centurial themes might be for the best. When he was asked give a speech at Chautauqua on the 20th century, he wrote a satirical novel, Lapham Rising, about a man getting asked to speak about the 20th century at the Institution. The century is irrelevant to imagination, but age does have an impact, Rosenblatt said. Or rather, a lack thereof.

“[Children] enlarge your imagination,” Rosenblatt said. “All children are natural denizens of the world of imagination … Picasso said the best painters he knew were 3 years old.”

For Rosenblatt, this inspiration can come from telling stories to his grandchildren, a process he describes as building a world together and then dwelling in it.

In Chautauqua, he is far from his grandchildren. But he still find places to imagine.

“I tend to think on my feet — sometimes, I imagine what I’m going to in the Amphitheater,” Rosenblatt said.

In the end, though, it is the familiar that inspires him.

“My favorite place to imagine is at my own kitchen table, with my writing pad … my dog at my feet, and my wife writing poetry somewhere in the house,” Rosenblatt said.