We’ve had some tremendous defenses of literature in the Book Haven pages over the years: Susan Sontag, in an interview with James Marcus, said (here): “Reading should be an education of the heart … Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. … It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”
Joseph Brodsky went even further in his Nobel lecture (here), famously saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. It seems to me that a potential master of our fates should be asked, first of all, not about how he imagines the course of his foreign policy, but about his attitude toward Stendhal, Dickens, Dostoevsky. … As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine.”
Lots of selling. Buying? Not so much. I haven’t read that much about why kids don’t read, why lit classes are dwindling. By gum, this is the best thing I’ve read on the topic. Gary Saul Morson writing in Commentary calls the problem the “Great Kvetch” among university professors. Slavist Morson is something of an expert on the topic: he teaches the largest class at Northwestern University – on Russian lit, of all things – for 500 kids. Nor does he teach the easy stuff: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are on the syllabus, and he devotes another course entirely to War and Peace, attended by 300.
Here are three reasons he gives. Reason #1 is the Wikipedia Delusion. Excerpt:
“I once delivered a paper in Norway on Anna Karenina, and a prominent scholar replied: ‘All my career I have been telling students not to do what you have done, that is, treat characters as real people with real problems and real human psychology. Characters in a novel are nothing more than words on a page. It is primitive to treat fictional people as real, as primitive as the spectator who rushed on stage to save Jesus from crucifixion.’ Here is the crux of it: Characters in a novel are neither words on a page nor real people. Characters in a novel are possible people. When we think of their ethical dilemmas, we do not need to imagine that such people actually exist, only that such people and such dilemmas could exist.”
Reason #2, or … why I hated Downton Abbey. Or, “Why don’t the women in Sense and Sensibility just go out and get jobs?” Excerpt:
“In this approach, the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were. This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?”
Reason #3, and here’s Exhibit One: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, in which the editors “paraphrase a key tenet of the dominant movement called ‘cultural studies,’ which has set the critical agenda”:
“Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated, and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.”
I don’t know about you, but they deserve jail time for making “artwork” plural. Morson politely overlooks that, and summarizes the argument this way: “If elements of popular entertainment illustrate social forces better than Pope or Proust do, then they should (and sometimes do) constitute the curriculum. The language of ‘production, circulation, and consumption’ is designed to remind us that art is an industrial product like any other and supports the rule of capital no less, and perhaps more insidiously, than the futures market.”
In short, “When you read a great novel, you put yourself in the place of the hero or heroine, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become your bad choices. You wince, you suffer, you have to put the book down for a while. When Anna Karenina does the wrong thing, you may see what is wrong and yet recognize that you might well have made the same mistake. And so, page by page, you constantly verify the old maxim: There but for the grace of God go I. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as that direct sensation of being in the other person’s place. … Empathy is not all of morality, but it is where it begins. … It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else.” Sounds like a recommendation for Tolstoy‘s Resurrection to me.
Why is all it important? If you aren’t sold so far, try this:
“The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently.
Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie.”
Read the whole thing here. He’s currently working on a study of The Brothers Karamazov. Can’t wait.