Why the study of literature is going extinct

January 13, 2016 • 12:00 pm

This is a long post, larded with quotes. If you don’t want to read it, take a number, get in line, and. . .

When I was in college at William & Mary, I was lucky enough to be taught by professors not only oriented more toward students than toward research (so we got lots of personal attention), but who were more or less advocates of the New Criticism: the school of thought that artistic objects, be they buildings or novels, should be approached as self-contained works of art. The alternative, practiced today, is to use works of art as ideological exemplars, to mine them for messages about politics, or to claim that they have a multiplicity of “meanings,” all equally valid.

Had I been taught to largely ignore the aesthetic and personal experience of art—the ways it changes how we think and feel—I don’t think I’d still be going to art galleries or reading novels. One of the greatest gifts I got from my professors at William & Mary (besides, of course, a first-rate education in biology) was an excitement about art that has made me want to keep on reading, to keep on looking at art and architecture. (Sadly, my musical education and appreciation has always been deficient). I can still remember my introduction to fine art, in which the professor was so enthused about it that I can’t resist a museum even today. Likewise with my courses in Old English and Beowulf, taught by a professor who really loved the material and didn’t use it to convey some ideology, or to teach us to mine the works for “symbols” in a way that leads one to ignore the text as a whole.

So I was really pleased to read a wonderful article in Commentary on the failure of teaching literature, “Why college kids are avoiding the study of literature.” And it’s by a local boy, Gary Saul Morson, the Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities as well as Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University, just to the north in Evanston.  I was equally pleased to see that the most frequent work he cited as a way to teach literature properly happened to be my favorite novel, Anna Karenina. Morson’s piece is the most sensible thing I’ve read in years about how to approach literature and learn what it’s about.

He begins by offering a scathing indictment of the way literature is usually taught in American colleges—a way that has permanently immunized Americans against good books. Here, for example is the result of a recent Pew survey:

Among all Americans, the average (mean) number of books read in the previous year was 12 and the median (midpoint) number of books read was four. Some 27% of adults said they hadn’t read any books over the past year, while 1% said they did not know or refused to answer.

And, based on my impressionistic survey of what people read on planes and the subway, not many of those books are substantive. What I see are crime novels, books like Fifty Shades of Grey, or Eat, Pray, Love, or self-improvement books.

Morson sees three places where the teaching of literature in both college and high schools has quashed student interest in the genre. His words are indented below, and though my excerpts are substantial, the article is very long, containing much more than I reproduce here:

Number one:  

The most common approach might be called technical. The teacher dedicates himself to the book as a piece of craft. Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing? Above all, this approach directs students to look for symbols. It is easy enough to discover Christ symbols. Water symbolism can almost always be found, since someone sooner or later will see a river, wash, or drink. In Huckleberry Finn, the Mississippi symbolizes freedom, while the Widow Douglas’s house symbolizes civilization. In Anna Karenina, trains symbolize fate. Or modernization. Or the transports of love.

At a more granular level, this approach involves teaching a dense thicket of theory focused on “the text.” But literary works are not texts; that is, they are not just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques. Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle? Would he have attracted a mass audience if he had?

Literary works are not texts in that sense. The text is simply the way the author creates an experience for the reader. It is no more the work itself than a score is a concert or a blueprint a creation capable of keeping out the rain.

Number two:

The second most common way to kill interest in literature is death by judgment. One faults or excuses author, character, or the society depicted according to the moral and social standards prevalent today, by which I mean those standards shared by professional interpreters of literature. These courses are really ways of inculcating those values and making students into good little detectors of deviant thoughts.

“If only divorce laws had been more enlightened, Anna Karenina would not have had such a hard time!” And if she had shared our views about [insert urgent concern here], she would have been so much wiser. I asked one of my students, who had never enjoyed reading literature, what books she had been assigned, and she mentioned Huckleberry Finn. Pondering how to kill a book as much fun as that, I asked how it had been taught. She explained: “We learned it shows that slavery is wrong.” All I could think was: If you didn’t know that already, you have more serious problems than not appreciating literature.

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. . . . What makes a work literary is that it is interesting to people who do not care about its original context. Literariness begins where documentariness ends.

Number three:

One can kill a work a third way: by treating it as a document of its time. “The author didn’t write in a vacuum, you know!” In other words, Dickens is notable because he depicts the deplorable conditions of workers of his age. True enough, but a factory inspector’s report might do even better.

This approach puts the cart before the horse. One does not read Dostoevsky to learn about Russian history; one becomes interested in Russian history from reading its classics. After all, every culture has many periods, and one can’t be interested in each period of every culture, so the argument about Russian history is bound to fail except with people already interested in Russian history.

That’s a very good summary. In fact, I know a very good writer and teacher who left one of the country’s best English departments, where he’d been chairman, simply because literature in his university was being demolished in precisely these ways.

So how do you teach literature? Morson describes his methods, and I wish I had him as a teacher. His method is to use literature as a vehicle for putting oneself in someone else’s shoes and imagining their feelings. In short, it’s a way of gaining empathy. And if you read a lot of literature, you put yourself in many people’s shoes, constantly honing your emotions and understanding of others. That’s not really becoming “politically correct,” but becoming able to analyze, criticize, and expand your own views. In other words, it’s the opposite of political correctness: a willingness to suspend not just disbelief but judgment, so that you can, for example, get some empathy out of Huckleberry Finn rather than (as one student told Morson), simply learning that “slavery is wrong”. As he says:

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.

. . . 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 besomeone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior. But we live with Anna Karenina from within for hundreds of pages, and so we get the feel of what it is to be her. And we also learn what it is like to be each of the people with whom she interacts. In a quarrel, we experience from within what each person is perceiving and thinking. How misunderstandings or unintentional insults happen becomes clear. This is a form of novelistic wisdom taught by nothing else quite so well.

. . . Reading a novel, you experience the perceptions, values, and quandaries of a person from another epoch, society, religion, social class, culture, gender, or personality type. Those broad categories turn out to be insufficient, precisely because they are general and experienced by each person differently; and we learn not only the general but also what it is to be a different specific person. By practice, we learn what it is like to perceive, experience, and evaluate the world in various ways. This is the very opposite of measuring people in terms of our values.

And this is why colleges should stop censoring, shouting down, and no-platforming others—why untrammeled free speech is so valuable.

I’m nearly done quoting here, though Morson’s excellent analysis goes on; but I want to add one more thing that he says—a pearl of wisdom hidden in the mantle of the essay. After discussing Chekhov’s great story “Enemies,” in which two men lose their empathy for each other because circumstances make each feel like a victim, Morson says this (my emphasis):

Nothing makes us less capable of empathy than consciousness of victimhood. Self-conscious victimhood leads to cruelty that calls itself righteousness and thereby generates more victims. Students who encounter this idea experience a thrill of recognition.

And that, in a nutshell, is a diagnosis of what’s wrong with many college students, Lefists, and, indeed, atheist bloggers. I often sense that someone whose self-identity is wholly bound up with victimhood is someone who has little empathy for others. But I’ll leave it there and make two more points.

One could read Morson’s essay as showing that good literature is like a therapy session:  learning to read well means learning empathy. I don’t think he means that, but I want to add that good literature is good writing as well, and the quality of words themselves—their arrangements, their tones, their sonority—can give one an emotional experience akin to that of great music. For example, read the last few pages of Joyce’s The Dead, or this passage from Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, and see if it doesn’t stir your feelings, even making you see things differently or more acutely than you did before. I know of no good literature that isn’t also good writing.

For example, here’s a passage that doesn’t teach empathy but gives us another way of seeing Africa. The prose is gorgeous and sumptuous:

I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet. like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt. like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers, and the formation gave to the tall solitary trees a likeness to the palms, or a heroic and romantic air like full-rigged ships with their sails furled, and to the edge of a wood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating. Upon the grass of the great plains the crooked bare old thorn trees were scattered, and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtles; in some places the scent was so strong that it smarted in the nostrils. All the flowers that you found or plains, or upon the creepers and liana in the native forest, were diminutive like flowers of the downs – only just in the beginning of the long rains a number of big, massive heavy-scented lilies sprang out on the plains. The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it. was the air. Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.

Here’s another passage from the same book that, equally beautiful, gives us insight into the feelings of the author, Karen Blixen. I take it to mean that she’s wondering if her temporary incursion into that continent will leave any trace of her presence, or if that great land will abide as it is, oblivious to her passing:

If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?

Finally, I looked hard at Morson’s piece to see if he touted literature as “another way of knowing,” which I take to mean “a way of understanding things about the world not accessible to science (construed broadly)”. And I didn’t find any mention of that. Rather, Morson sees literature as giving us a way of feeling—of putting yourself in hypothetical situations to ponder how you’d react. That, of course, is a valuable function of literature, one that keeps me coming back to it. But it does not mean, as I’ve argued before, that the humanities—much less religion—tells us anything about the world that we can’t learn through observation, testing, replication, and hypothesis—that is, science construed broadly.

152 thoughts on “Why the study of literature is going extinct

  1. Hey, the old brain is braining today!

    Thank you.

    Literary works are not texts in that sense. The text is simply the way the author creates an experience for the reader. It is no more the work itself than a score is a concert or a blueprint a creation capable of keeping out the rain.


    I well remember speaking at length with a friend who was relatively fresh out of (an Ivy League) college. He told me at length about how, in art class, he had learned all about perspective and placement and relative size and shading and how he could just pick those tings out and see just what the artist was up to.

    I told him, basically, bollocks. Having done a lot of visual artwork and been friends and colleagues with many more, artists create what looks good to them. They aren’t (or very rarely are) calculating angles or thinking of how to slip one figure in front of another. It comes as a whole. It is the way it must be (for that artist).

    His education was in engineering*; so that may be a mitigating factor in his favor: He’s very analytical.

    (* But then so was mine. And I, like Jerry, loved my “liberal arts” classes, that, thankfully, were requirements in my engineering school (I aced them all). (Most engineering students (in my day) hated taking the liberal arts courses.)

    1. I’d quibble with that a bit. I do agree that creating art based on a whole, gestalt like mental image is common, but there are several other ways it happens. For one example, it is positively common that an artist, in any medium, has no clear, specific idea of what they are creating when they start.

      1. I agree; but they don’t do it by pulling out the theory book (literally or figuratively — except for a few Renaissance paintings, where I think it was done for instructional/demonstration reasons.)

        1. I don’t really know how writers or visual artists work, but I do know how (good) composers work. No, they don’t pull out the theory book when creating, but that is only because theory is mostly descriptive, taken from observing the “best practices” established by the way good composers compose. Good composers most assuredly are thinking about how their music works at a fundamental, architectural, nitty-gritty level: why does this note in this spot work or not work, etc.

  2. Saying “Nothing makes us less capable of empathy than consciousness of victimhood” is a (pardonable) exaggeration. Historically at least, consciousness of superiority has almost certainly reduced empathy even more.

    However, its still a fair point for just the reasons Jerry says.

    1. A fair point, but remember (and this is not post facto rationalization) that consciousness of victimhood is often bizarrely combined with visions of superiority. “I’m a victim, but I’m a special snowflake and deserve much better!”

      1. One only needs to look at the Christian Right in the USA to confirm that. Authoritarians in general seem to exhibit this fairly often as well.

        1. Goodwin trigger warning:

          Consciousness of superiority and victimhood often go hand in hand.

          The Nazis were born out of an intense sense of butt hurt victimhood. It would be hard to find someone who felt more the victim than Hitler… in his mind they were the victims of treacherous allied powers, especially France, they were the victims of traitors within, especially the Jews, and so on. The aggrievement drips from his writing and speeches, and that is part of what connected with his audience: they all felt like victims and Hitler helped sharpen their sense of victimhood while helping them focus on someone to blame.

          And, of course, they preached that the Germanic tribes, the victims of so many treacheries, were the best tribe. The narrative often goes, “We, the very best of people, were made into victims by these lesser people!”, which only makes the feeling of outrage seem the more intense.

          1. Make America great again! Those liberals and immigrants have all but destroyed us, but we can throw them all out and go back to being the amazing people we are!

            That kind of thing? 😉

  3. I can’t agree more.

    What I ask of a piece of writing (pretty much without exception) is: Tell me the story!

    Even in my work: Report writing etc., I tell people: Give me a narrative. Tell me the story. What did you do? When, how, and why? If you don;t tell me, I can’t understand what the data mean.

    I detest (truly detest) books that are so self-consciously styled that they sacrifice the story for the style. Tell me a (damned good) story!

    1. Not just written stories, but the stories in movies and in television, in short, anywhere a story is told. The great shows are always those that tell a hell of a tale. Everything else is decoration. That is why Marvel Studios is kicking the shanks out of the CW’s palsy stories aimed at the 14 year old Snapchatter.

  4. Fortunately, for those people who have been instilled with the love of reading, no college courses are required–just a good library. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, we will miss professors like Morson.

  5. I had’t finished a fiction book in over 10 years, I completely lost my appreciation for it, recently I started reading the works of Shakespeare and Poe and building a reading list of literature that includes your favorite, I realized that I’d shut myself off from literature when I went searching for “reality” when really it was an ally that I neglected. Important stuff.

    “Sadly, my musical education and appreciation has always been deficient”

    I recommend these lecture courses from thegreatcourses.com “Understanding the Fundamentals of Music”, “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music”, “How Music and Mathematics Relate” and “Music and the Brain”

    My musical education and appreciation has always been sufficient, but these courses have given me an appreciation for music I couldn’t have dreamed of before.

  6. So, in your reading through of the Bible, did you find any stories, poems, etc. where you could put yourself in someone else’s shoes and learn something? Could you learn something from one of those self-contained works of art even though you don’t share a writer’s beliefs?

      1. jblilie, I’m self-taught in the bible: I studied Lit. and never once had to crack open either Testament.

        Parts of the OT are wicked fascinating: For a short, horrific tale, read Genesis 34!

    1. Same here. I also remember my sister’s Children’s Bible from when I was a kid that I read over and over again because I liked the stories.

      1. I never liked the stories until I translated all the vicious parts from Greek. Hmmmmm that’s probably something I shouldn’t admit.

        1. I remember getting quite excited in Latin when I read (in Latin) Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of … etc for the first time. It made it much easier to learn too.

          1. I learned Latin using the British version of the Cambridge Latin course. I had the best time with those books for some reason. I think it was the illustrations which always made me laugh and made me make my friends laugh and resulted in me getting kicked out of Latin class for being disruptive.

            I loved those books so much that I bought them for the nostalgia as an adult.

            And if you took that course, there is a whole section on Pompeii and you meet Caecillius and the whole lot. When Doctor Who did a story on that where he saved Caecillius and his family, I knew a writer on staff had taken Latin using the same course. You have no idea how excited I was when Caecillius showed up on Doctor Who!

            1. I used the Cambridge books to learn Latin too, and I’ve got copies of them as well. Every now and then I go back to them to start again from scratch, though I usually only get about half way through the first book before something else grabs my attention.

              The Dr Who link is so cool! I might have to go back to the books again. 🙂

              1. There is an American Cambridge Latin course. It is probably better in that they use real Latin (Caesar and such) but I like British one I learned on better probably because of the nostalgia.

              2. Sadly no. Good Ancient Greek books are hard to come by and my prof (sadly recently departed) wrote his own courseware. Even dictionaries are rare and you usually get stuck with a lexicon that goes from Greek to English only.

                Damn, I should have done my PhD in Classics & become rich of a Greek course like the Cambridge Latin course. It would be so fun to write.

              3. I agree – it’s the sort of thing that would be fun to write with the knowledge. It’s a shame there’s not one available already.

            2. My school used the Thompson & Craddock textbooks. Ah, happy days!

              I still have three complete sets of them: one “working” set and two pristine sets.

              1. Grumio! And Metella and my favourite – Cerberus!

                I was so sad when they all got killed in Pompeii. My Latin teacher made it worse, naming them all. Even Cerberus! Every time I see the remains of that poor Pompeiian guard dog (and I saw it up close at a recent Pompeii exhibit), I think of Cerberus from the Cambridge Latin course.

    2. I especially run hot and cold on Genesis. I really like the stories of Jacob and Joseph, but very much dislike the stories of Abraham and Noah (both of which are earlier).

      The Bible’s writing style is so spare and bare-bones, that virtually all adaptations and retellings wind up expanding on the text (unlike adaptations of Greek myths), which is why many adaptations are quite bad, while both the good and bad (and ugly) ones often introduce new material.
      (Thomas Mann’s 4-volume retelling of the story of Joseph is quite good and 30 times longer than the Biblical original, not to mention not very theologically orthodox at all.)

      The reader is far more free to project their own feelings into the Biblical text than other texts, precisely because if its spare writing style. This is both and asset and a liability, IMO.

    3. This commenter asked if there were Biblical stories that encouraged empathy, but everyone is answering a different question.

        1. The commenter asked about examples “where you could put yourself in someone else’s shoes and learn something”.

          The Old Testament, at least, generally discourages empathy. None of the protagonists are very likable. However, I think some verses can encourage empathy if you really think about them, such as Ecclesiastes 9:11:

          I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

          Sadly, the lesson is contradicted by much of the rest of the Bible.

          1. I read it as a yes/no Q, not a request for examples; but fair enough.

            I did find many of the stories compelling from a literary standpoint. Not that I agreed with the content or the motives, just that the writing is good enough for that effect.

            Of course, much of the Bible is ploddingly dull (I have read the entire thing, including all the begats, mainly to be able to truthfully make the claim — and also to actually see what was there (but the begats was only in the service of making the truthful claim)).

            Ecclesiates, yes. Much of the stories of the travails of the “Israelites” prior to settling down in “Canaan”. The story of Joseph. The stories of Babylonian exile. The stories of Jacob and Esau. Etc. Good, human stories. (Just imagine the god character as an evil feudal overlord.) Way too much magic in the NT for it to interest me much. (I’ve never been able to get up any interest in any other books of the Fantasy genre since reading the Ring books. When magic can be pulled out of a hat in any plot situation, you’ve lost me. Much science fiction hits me the same way unfortunately. Good science fiction creates its own rules, compellingly — and then sticks to them.)

    4. I learned in part what it felt like to identify with a tribe, and believe in God along with a tribe, approaching God like our leader.

      1. The story of David and Absalom is one of the high points of the old testament. That’s why it has been retold so many timesm by Faulkner and Hellmann, to name two. It’s not about g*d at all.

  7. Literature may not tell us anything about the world that cannot be otherwise verified empirically, but it can tell us an enormous deal about BEING in the world.

  8. Re: “Morson sees literature as giving us a way of feeling—of putting yourself in hypothetical situations to ponder how you’d react.”

    In “The Educated Imagination”, Northrop Frye writes something similar: “You wouldn’t go to ‘Macbeth’ to learn about the history of Scotland–you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul.”

  9. Hear, hear, hurrah, and secular Amen.

    What is interesting is that even heavily ideological novels if they are good are MORE than ideology and also convey the feelings of empathy discussed above.

    Two very politically correct feminist novels are “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker and “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I have always loved the first, but am a bit reserved about the second.

    Purple is very poignantly and beautifully written and manages to pull in many readers without recourse to ideological rhetoric. It is a black feminist novel, but it is more than that and can be appreciated in several ways.

    By contrast, I find Bradley’s MA to be excessively didactic, often bludgeoning the reader with its message in a way that I find diminishes my desire for empathy with the characters.

    Like many readers, I am disappointed by the final fourth of Huck Finn (Hemingway said it cheated), but the problems there are best discussed in precisely the framework Morson so recommends as the best way to study and experience literature.

    1. The Color Purple is an execrable book in content and style; it also regards black men as either rapists or emasculated Uncle Toms; and according to Alice Walker, came to her by way of “ancestor visitation.” If I told a shrink that things came to me by way of ancestor visitations, I’d be given anti-psychotic drugs, but Walker can get away with that neo-primitive drivel and people eat it up.
      Let me also note that in 2013, Alice Walker, who acts as if she’s the personal Savior to Gazans and Palestinians, and who has made a number of anti-Semitic comments (as opposed to criticizing the policies of Israel, she doesn’t like Jews, though of course, declares that some of her best friends are Jews) publicly professed her belief in the vile and insane, anti-Semitic doctrines of David Icke! She’s always been a spiritual exhibitionist and full of woo-woo bullshit (as well as a lousy writer), but it’s one thing that she believes Icke’s idiotic notion that the moon is really a spaceship (how stupid can she be? and she professes a love of and interest in nature!); but swallowing Icke’s hateful and crazed beliefs that Jews are really murderous, blood-guzzling, shape-shifting, Illuminati reptilian aliens from the constellation Draco)who control the world, takes her out the rather benign category of a snake-oil salesman for woo-woo spiritual bullshit and puts her in the realm of the truly dangerous and destructive. I published this rant against her belief here, if anyone is interested in learning more about this appalling belief of hers. http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2013-07-19/article/41278?headline=Go-Ask-Alice-Walker–By-J.-J.-Phillips. She’s also been on the Alex Jones Show.

  10. Thank you for this post Jerry!

    I was a voracious reader from very early childhood, but high school made me hate “literature”. To this day I don’t read books that win awards because we were assigned a whole lot of them at school and I hated every one.

    I still read other books at school for enjoyment, but I felt like reading for enjoyment was bad. When I had to do a book review for the exams we (used to) sit here at the end of Year 11, I made the whole thing up; I invented a book, characters, plot etc on the spot, and wrote a review that matched the model I knew they wanted. I’d read dozens of books, but none with writing a review in mind. That’s the last time I wrote a “proper” book review too.

    Reading is supposed to be for enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Along the way you learn all sorts of stuff about all sorts of things, but that’s incidental – a bonus. I’ve got a better than average general knowledge, but I never went around learning trivia. It’s just absorbed from reading, and remembered because I enjoyed the process. It helps with learning how to write too.

    1. I once told my high school English teacher that his course was “a bird course” and he made me read Dostoyevsky and Camus as independent study. At the time, I was secretly anorexic and taking caffeine pills and I totally lost all energy. Dostoyevsky has weird memories for me.

      Me and my big mouth.

          1. We read Beowulf in 9th grade and Paradise Lost and Chaucer – which is probably kind of crazy. Mr. Williams somehow made everything interesting and there were only 20 in our whole grade. I’m not saying I was mature enough to absorb it all, but it was wonderful to have a good teacher who challenged us in a good way. Now our science teacher was another story – turned me off science for a while

            1. Now imagine reading all those things as an independent study for the first time. I did okay. I was a good student but it was hell.

    2. I tried very hard to like the books assigned to me — and I did like most of them. And I am happy, as an adult, that my teachers exposed me to such books.

      However — I hope my history teacher from high school isn’t reading this — I totally faked a review (recap/synopsis) of a history book I chose for a writing assignment. I skimmed it briefly and wrote a report that got an A. I think the teacher was suspicious; but he didn’t bust me.

      I procrastinated on the assignment far too long to actually read the book and I was pretty stuck.

      I only read that book in adulthood and loved it. I’ve read it twice.

      I didn’t read any Hemingway (except The Old Man and the Sea) until I was 30. And then I was blown away by For Whom the Bell Tolls. I would never have been able to appreciate that book as a child*.

      (*I think I needed knowledge of Spanish history and of their Civil War in particular before really being able to appreciate that book. I can highly recommend Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. I also would have needed an adult perspective on interpersonal relations.)

      1. One of the books a was assigned at high school was by Solzhenitsyn, which my communist atheist English teacher thought was the best book ever, but simply didn’t appeal to me. I’ve got no doubt that one is a good book, but there are other books I’d rather read and I don’t want to be weighed down by books I “should” read. I read novels for enjoyment, and that mostly means historical mystery and adventure. There are a lot of really good books in that genre, and every book I read that I “should” means one less book I can read that I want to.

        As others have said in today’s post on the same topic, English teachers didn’t destroy my love of reading, but it made me hide what I read and how I thought about it.

        Also, although my mother valued books and is the reason I could read at three, she was also an athlete, and I was constantly criticized for how much I read. “Bookworm” was an insult in out family, and I tended to hide how much I read well into adulthood. I didn’t even put “reading” in the interests section of my CV until I was well into my 30s.

        I agree with what you say about knowing certain things helps you understand certain books. All the time I discover things that make me think, “so that’s what that meant.” It makes me want to go back and read (or watch it) again with the new knowledge in mind.

        1. More importantly for me, math teachers ruined numbers, the Latin alphabet AND the Greek alphabet for me!

    1. Petrushka, encountering “lit crit” in grad school is what cured me of grad school. It is an insane farrago of ideology and bullshit masquerading as “theory.” They wouldn’t know a real theory if it came up and bit a chunk out of their ass.

      I wish now I had stuck with the sciences.

      Yes, my middle age is filled with regrets.

      1. I’ve been a voracious reader since about age 7 and love most literary fiction, poetry, plays, science books, and well-written thrillers. What really turned me off was the explication de texte I had to do for my French degree. Did NOT want to do more of the same in grad school, so did comp sci and science instead. I hate(d) having to hunt for symbols, but find it even worse when the symbols bash you over the head ( as in Iris Murdoch). Love a good story with interesting characters and poetic language ( like Ondaatje or Nabokov).

        1. At least you didn’t have to read Kafka in German or Plato in Ancient Greek! As if the languages weren’t already hard, you had to add in philosophical concepts…and what was extra evil is my profs didn’t tell us what we were reading and it took a while for us to realize that these were actually difficult concepts to grasp and not just the language so we got down off the window ledges, having realized we weren’t completely stupid after all.

  11. PCC(E), I think it is wrong, relative to most people, to suggest that your “musical education and appreciation has always been deficient”. You have obviously thought a great deal about music and are quite capable of making educated reviews and worthy critiques.


    Formal science and engineering education from K-12 to post-doc has such a small cross section with visceral contemplation of the arts. It is like we are programming machines not to notice their existence.

    On yet another note, there will be a while before we see a transition in the Liberal Arts (Art, Literature, Music, Philosophy) in universities before they fully assess, utilize, and innovate their techniques to be compatible with the technologically driven world we have rendered for ourselves.

    I seriously doubt my children will read more than a handful of novels in their lifetimes. Liberal Arts should think about that as an average and make a plan to understand what they need to do to be competitive with the attention span of 21st and half century children.

    Great post!

    1. Take poetry and drama like I did. Both are short reads! And poetry is great because it can use so much to express something in such a short piece of art. It is great when you get exposed to really great poetry.

      1. And I have to say, this poem, which I learned in my 1st year English class in a huge lecture hall full of students is We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks. I still remember the professor reading it out. Later, I took a class with that same professor and she introduced me to poetry by Canadian lesbians who were horribly censored at the time and this gave me a whole new perspective on lesbian women and how they live their lives judged by others.

        Here is some Gwendolyn Brooks:

        The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.

        We real cool. We
        Left school. We

        Lurk late. We
        Strike straight. We

        Sing sin. We
        Thin gin. We

        Jazz June. We
        Die soon.

  12. My major was in English Lit, o so many years ago. As I recall we came at every work from many directions, and were always required to support our interpretation by citing evidence from the text.

    I was taught to try to read a work three times: once for plot, twice for meaning, and the third time for the refinements.

    Today I try to read every work on two levels. First, become the perfect reader and go where the author wants you to go. Cheer the heroes, boo the villains, laugh and cry at appropriate times, and nod sagely over the wisdom. But, on the second level — stand back and evaluate it more critically. That way you don’t just enter the mind of the characters, but of the writer. I’m not sure if I was taught that specifically, or just picked it up.

    1. Sastra, what do you do now? I, too, majored in Lit (American, plus creative writing) and I now find I sometimes have to work three jobs to make a living.

      1. Homemaker. But I read a lot.

        I’ve heard though that a lot of companies like English majors because they know how to read, interpret, communicate, write, analyze, and express themselves well. Unless the field is very technical and focused my guess is that these skills usually count as qualifications.

        1. Note: I majored in English lit because it was what I loved. I’m not sure if that’s horribly impractical — or there’s no better reason on earth. Or something in between.

          Probably that last one.

            1. Faulkner is fantastic! Read his Hamlet/Town/Mansion trilogy recently and will start Sartoris soon. Read all his blockbusters years ago, but plan to reread.Such wonderfully real characters.

              I also highly recommend Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe series (beginning w The Sportswriter) and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and the Tadmanisn Richard Flanagan and and and… ( do NOT recommend PUlitzer winner All the Light you Cannot See or Booker finalist To Rise Again at a Decent Hour…)

          1. No, I make most of my decisions on whether I like something or not. My education and all my jobs have been because I liked it. When I stopped liking things, I stopped doing them. It has worked for me so far and if you do what makes you happy, everything else just falls into place.

        2. I work in IT and both my degrees are Humanities ones. Sometimes I’ve made the same amount of $$ as engineers because we were doing the same job. They like you to be not only good at communication but also a quick learner who is adaptable. Technology changes and we need to keep up. Still, I am more on the analyst/business/process side of things than the super technical; the tech stuff I don’t like and find tedious. Supporting anything also makes me want to jump out of a window.

    2. It was hard to break the habit of highlighting and scribbling in margins of books noting those things you describe. I think it took years out of university to overcome the habit.

  13. English prof here.

    I got my MA in literature and creative writing back in 1985. I consider it mostly a waste of time.

    The good outcome: I now teach writing to college freshmen. It is a hideously difficult, tedious, exasperating job, because I have found that about 1/4 to 1/3 of the students cannot follow basic directions.

    The pay as an adjunct professor is shit, but I have insurance and I also have time to farm in the summer time.

    Yet I am buoyed by the knowledge that I’m teaching them a critical skill that will advance them in life. I don’t expect them to thank me until, oh, four years after they’ve left my class.

    The waste of time part: There is too much in the world now that is infinitely more interesting that novels, poems, and plays. I read incessantly, but not “literature.” I read about evolution, psychology, critical thinking, atheism–anything but poetry and fiction.

    I took a whole course in Shakespeare. Now I’m done with him.

    Frankly, I would care if literary studies went the way of astrology–interesting historical pastime, out of date and obsolete.

    I agree with Richard Dawkins that the Nobel Prize for literature belongs to someone like Steven Pinker–interesting as hell, and goddamn can he write.

    1. I hate not having and edit button.

      “Frankly I WOULD NOT CARE if literary studies went the way of astrology….”

      1. I believe you have one of the most difficult jobs in the business but also very important. I remember the writing in the third year of high school and again, college freshman year. I guess those are the required years but today, that could be wrong.

        Maybe it’s not as critical today in business and career as it was before email and computers but it may be.

      2. That’s your comeuppance for dissing English. The language actually attacked you and forced you to write that. Don’t mess with English man, it’s vicious.

    2. I think I experienced the same malaise about doing my English degree by 3rd year that you describe. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I loved some of the courses that had a lasting impact on me, namely Chaucer of all things, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Romantic poets but I don’t even know why I just didn’t want to do it anymore. The thought of doing a graduate degree in English repulses me. Maybe I just got bored of it. Maybe I just studied it because I knew I could write well. Who knows?

      But then again, I didn’t take a lot of literature courses. I did this mostly because the amount of reading was far too much. Some courses had 30 novels. No thanks. I made fun of my friends who took American Literature because they had to read that way too big novel, Moby Dick. I called it “Moby Phallus”. I have to say though, that I liked George Elliot and a few others that I never would have chosen for myself. I really wish science fiction had a better place in universities as I think it explores themes that need exploring and let’s face it, I like it.

    3. Hi Mike,

      Can you describe briefly your plan of attack for teaching Freshmen?

      I ask because I never, ever got any good instruction in writing, in my life, including at university (aside from how to manufacture a persuasive essay to pass a test).

      I learned to write by doing it. By editing. By reading — a lot. And, by reading a few books, mainly William Zinnser’s On Writing Well, which I found pivotal in my life (really).

      1. I’m pretty constrained by department policy. Pasted below are our “Course Outcomes.” I think everyone will agree it’s a huge mass of stuff for freshmen to absorb. And most of them don’t:

        Students completing college writing should be able to:

        Engage in reading and writing as an academic

        1.Read, understand, and think critically about the ideas and language of others, including rethinking previous knowledge in light of new readings and ideas.

        2.Compare and contrast previous knowledge with new ideas and language.

        3.Make interpretive connections between ideas, examples, and arguments from diverse readings.

        4.Distinguish personal opinions from arguments based on logic and evidence.

        5.Explain and account for their own processes of reading, prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing.

        6.Write and revise expository critical papers that are at least 4 pages long,
        focus around a thesis or project,
        represent the student writer’s point of view, go beyond summary or reporting to engagement with and analysis of texts.

        1. Thanks!

          That’s a pretty good list. 6 and especially 3 are pretty challenging. 5 is a great teaching tool, seems to me.

          But that’s is a LOT to cover well in one semester. Hats off for your hard work!

    4. I have found that 1/4 to 1/3 of teachers cannot communicate effectively to a wide audience. There may have been some research on this done once or twice in the history of education. Cheers.

  14. I chalk this up to two factors, (1) the constant push to make our kids grow up faster, and (2) the need for schools to ensure assignments are done.

    The three analyses he complains about are okay things to do, but it’s sort of the extra stuff advanced readers can do with a book after they’ve read that book for fun and content and empathy, and now they want more out of it. IMO it should be the icing on the cake, not the cake. Thus appropriate for upper level collegiate literary classes. But there’s this constant push to allow younger kids to do the sorts of things advanced students do, and in this case, having them do advanced literary analysis probably kills the book rather than enhancing their appreciation of it.

    The second problem is how you ensure your HS students read more than just the cliffs notes or watched the movie version of the book you assigned them to read. I suspect teachers use literary analysis as a means of assessing completion. I don’t know any good, workable solution around this problem. If you want kids to read assigned readings, you’re going to need some sort of evaluative procedure, or many of them won’t do it. And there is always going to be the hazard that no matter what procedure you use, student focus on figuring out what they need to know to pass the evaluation is going to kill their enjoyment of the book. Even the focus he suggests – learning empathy and an ability to walk in the characters’ shoes – can “kill” a book if the reader treats it like a reference tome, searching it for scenes they can use to get an A on their did-you-learn-empathy quiz.

  15. I have not yet read your entire post, but I will go back and do so once I vent a little. I think a major reason why people read less literature is b/c of goddam cable tv and the damn internet. They are sucked into the habit of pixel worship at a young age.

    1. Mark, you should see what it is like to keep students’ faces out of their goddamn mobile devices during class. I’m afraid one of these days I’m going to snatch one out of a student’s hand and dash it against a wall.

      1. Well, the Project Gutenberg version of “Huckleberry Finn” is about 574,000 characters long (includes spaces). I suggest you send them the entire book in 4100 consecutive tweets. 🙂

  16. Yes, great post indeed! Thanks.

    For me, great works of literature are all stories — stories about me and about others and about how I might be if I were another. I do not like tuneless modern music and I do not like literature without a story.

    Does that date me?

  17. “Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle?”

    George Perec did something like that in a fascinating book: “La vie mode d’emploi” (“Life a User’s Manual”). But he did it as a way to tell a story, a lot of stories in fact.

    He was also litterate in science and wrote an amusing parody of scientific articles:
    Experimental demonstration of the tomatotopic organization in the Soprano (Cantatrix sopranica L.)
    Perhaps you have to know the French life of the 80’s to fully appreciate the numerous allusions hidden in this text (especially in the references).

    1. Dickens is another author I can’t stand. That entire period is horrid. I once had a boyfriend give me a copy of Great Expectations because he thought doing so was showing how cultured he was. When he broke up with me, he said how I had “brought him back to life” so he could now find someone for himself. Thanks, you used me. That’s lovely.

      But I hated Dickens before all that.

        1. I too disliked Dickens to start with. But when I was well above 50 I saw the RSO do a day-long version of “Nicolas Nickleby” on the tube and loved it. So I read that, then “Great Expectations”, then … almost all the others. (Can’t get into “Martin Chuzzlewit”)

          So give him another try in a few years.

        2. I hated reading Dickens in high school, but after college I decided to read Bleak House and was bowled over. Simply put, one of the best novels I ever read: a portrait of an entire corrupt society, rendered with savage humor, tragic satire, and a wonderful grasp of human eccentricity and folly.

          Nothing else I’ve read by Dickens was as great, but I still enjoyed Barnaby Rudge, The Christmas Carol, and Oliver Twist. Our Mutual Friend was a bit of a disappointment.

            1. I’ve heard good things about that series and hope to watch it someday. An earlier BBC adaptation featured Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock, and that sounds even more exciting.

              1. I think I might have seen the Diana Rigg one, too, but preferred the Gillian Anderson one. That said, I really did NOT like Gillian as Miss Havisham. ( did see her do an amazing Blanche Dubois for National Theatre).

      1. There’s something about English writing from that period. I remember when I first read Darwin I got a smaller version of that “Victorian vibe” I had from Dickens and a few others. Weird.

        1. Yeah I really can’t stand anything Victorian because they seem so whiny. When I look at a statue of Queen Victoria (and there are a few in Canada) I swear I become instantly constipated.

  18. Finally! a topic I know little about, as opposed to very little. I remember that when Hemingway was asked, “How do you become a writer?” he answered, “Just write one true sentence. Then write another.” This to me is the secret of good literature, and the reason to read it: it can be truer than the life we know.
    Also, it can be funny as hell. I challenge you to read the first page of Catcher and not laugh.

  19. With regards to reading on planes, to be fair, while I normally read plenty of literature I find it can be hard to read it when travelling, tired and jet-lagged. So on holiday I do resort to trashy pop fiction. If Jerry spotted me reading on a plane it would not be representative of my normal reading material!

    At school I was one of those students who did well in science and math, but once English moved past spelling, punctuation and grammar and onto symbolism and emotional response, I lost a lot of interest. Until I had a teacher who did focus on craft, which I actually found interesting. I think I always like deconstruction and looking at underlying structures, plus the craft emphasis is important if you want to teach students how to write and not just read.

  20. I appreciate that you mentioned Thomas Wolfe in your post. For 40-45 years I have gone back again and again to a brief passage from You can’t go home again that I realized in retrospect had moved me more than any other fiction passage I have read. Interesting that he recreates the “Child, child” usage in both passages. I’ve read all his books, but didn’t register this until reviewing your cited passage.

    “Child, child, have patience and belief, for life is many days, and each present hour will pass away. Son, son, you have been mad and drunken, furious and wild, filled with hatred and despair, and all the dark confusions of the soul – but so have we. You found the earth too great for your one life, you found your brain and sinew smaller than the hunger and desire that fed on them – but it has been this way with all men. You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way, but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth. And now, because you have known madness and despair, and because you will grow desperate again before you come to evening, we who have stormed the ramparts of the furious earth and been hurled back, we who have been maddened by the unknowable and bitter mystery of love, we who have hungered after fame and savored all of life, the tumult, pain, and frenzy, and now sit quietly by our windows watching all that henceforth never more shall touch us – we call upon you to take heart, for we can swear to you that these things pass.”

  21. This post dovetails nicely with what Stephen Pinker says in “Better Angels”: he claims that one of the factors driving down violence is that the availability of literature eventually made people better able to empathize with others.

    1. Don’t fall for the (can I say, ‘pathetic’)fallacy that ‘literature (or the arts in general) necessarily humanizes a person because being able to empathize with a fictional character makes the reader more empathetic to the humanity of real people’. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Many of the architects and engineers of the Holocaust considered themselves extremely cultured, sensitive individuals who loved literature and art and music. Check out George Steiner’s eloquent essay, “To Educate Our Gentlemen,” in his book “Language and Silence.” You can read it online in Google Books. A very interesting, though academic, book on the subject is “Empathy and the Novel,” by Suzanne Keane.
      I have published fiction; however,to my repugnance, I personally find that too many people who preen themselves on their sensitivity to the “lives” of fictional characters more often than not can be quite obtuse and judgmental about real people experiencing similar trials and tribulations, much as I find people who preen themselves on their spiritual sensitivity are usually the first to judge and condemn. In fact, certain readers of my fiction are deeply sympathetic to my characters but completely unsympathetic to my personal plights and dilemmas; and they need me to acknowledge their sensitivity and praise them for it.

      1. I think that Pinker’s conjecture is more statistical in nature; clearly being “cultured” doesn’t make one a nice person.

        I’ll have to reread that argument; his conjecture was based on levels of violence declining about the time books became for the public (I know…correlation not causation).

      2. Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burned and he actually took steps to help the Romans. Tacitus talks about this.

        I just must defend Nero – he was a party emperor, cruel though he was. And he had side burns/mutton chops making him easy to pick out and come on – mutton chops! For an emperor! Cool.

        1. Thank you, I was going to say that too.

          He was very effective in helping the Romans hurt by the fire. He went into action immediately.

          I’m not sure where the “fiddled while it burned” meme came from. Maybe just because he was so concerned about his music.

          1. The rumours that he caused the fire made him blame the Christians and now we have to hear about Christians being persecuted by Romans ad nauseam thousands of years later. Thanks a lot Nero!

  22. Excellent books regarding enjoying reading novels are those by Nabokov
    1. Lectures on Literature, and,
    2. Lectures on Russian Literature.
    These are based on Nabokov’s notes when he taught literature at Wellesley and Cornell.

    1. Those 2 Nabokov books are wonderful! I keep planning to read or reread all the books he discusses along with his notes.

  23. > Finally, I looked hard at Morson’s piece to see if he touted literature as “another way of knowing,” which I take to mean “a way of understanding things about the world not accessible to science (construed broadly)”. And I didn’t find any mention of that.

    Well, for my money, the following passage comes perilously close:

    “There is an obvious proof that the great novelists knew more about human psychology than any social scientist who ever lived. If psychologists, sociologists, or economists understood people as well as George Eliot or Tolstoy did, they could create portraits of people as believable as Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke or Anna Karenina. But no social scientist has ever come close.”

    I mean, wouldn’t Morson be peeved at a sociologist proclaiming: “If novelists understood people as well as Karl Marx or Erich Fromm did, they could conceive of theories as profound as alienation under capitalism or the authoritarian character. But no one ever came close.”?

    1. I had an English professor who used to describe sociology as “the study of the blatantly obvious”. I sometimes think social scientists and English professors hate each other for some reason. I liked both areas so I can’t see why and truth be told, I grew tired of my English degree by 3rd year. I can’t remember what bothered me about it but I just would have rather been doing the Classics degree I eventually went back to do.

      1. This might be a “small differences” thing on the part of some of those who do “cultural studies”, which sometimes seems to be more pomo sociology but housed in English departments.

        1. Yeah that could be. I notice that my alma mater has an “English and Cultural Studies” degree that seems ghastly to me. I don’t even know why it seems ghastly, it just seems like something that would make an annoying hum in my brain and cross my eyes. I feel slightly racist when I admit to this because of the big liberal part of my brain. But, I think your PoMo connection may have something to do with it and maybe the SJW connection as well. For all I know it’s a great course but I have these aforementioned biases against it.

    2. I, too, will have to reread Pinker’s argument, but I concur with Steiner. The notion that reading literature makes one more empathetic sounds nice so most people (probably even Pinker) accept it as received wisdom; certainly, most in the literary world like it. It sounded okay to me until I began to think about it. I would very much like to hear Pinker explain or defend his position. Jerry has something to say on the matter in Faith Vs. Fact. But to me, there’s a kind of icky moral superiority inherent in the notion and it smacks of the deeply offensive (to me) primitive spiritual/religious assertion that literature MUST uplift and ennoble the spirit; and the corollary is that if a writer isn’t in touch with the spiritual,his or her writing is a priori not only inferior artistically, but morally as well. And what is “literature”? Dostoevsky? Dickens? DeFoe? DeSade? I thought we’d moved away from such primitive considerations; guess not. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s very dangerous to attach such moral considerations to the reading (or writing) of literature and it’s an argument that should be discarded.
      And has for Nero and the comment below by Diana MacPherson, thanks for the tip, I’ll gladly put down Suetonius (for awhile) and give Tacitus a go; anyway, I’m sure that reading Suetonius makes me a corrupt, unempathetic person but I dig all the salacious stuff, like reading the Daily Mail of the day. But the moralists would tell me I need to read “Pilgrim’s Progress” or something interminably boring and “uplifting” like that; or maybe Alice walker (whom I commented on re a previous comment in this section), who is a staunch adherent of the belief that a writer must be spiritually superior in order to write true literature.

      1. I too don’t think I can 100% agree with that “literature is empathizing” verdict. In some cases, yes, but take something like “Medea”, surely among the most intense stuff I ever read – terrific and dreadful, but do you empathize with a thunderstorm? The fun is in watching, preferably from a safe distance.

  24. I didn’t study a lot of literature when I was an English student. Some of you may find that strange, but I deliberately chose poetry and plays and avoided literature with the exception of those things that were forced on me, namely wretched 17th C literature that you read from a big anthology and Chaucer (because I loved middle English). I did enjoy Spencer though. Oh yes, and I had to take Canadian literature and I hated Roughing it in the Bush and the various novels about dusty prairies during the Depression. I think classes were conducted in the way described by Morson but there was discussion of symbolism (I got in a fight in a class about a canoe and whether it was a womb or phallic symbol) and there were, especially in poetry, a discussion of meter and rhythm that made me appreciate it much more. I think there is often a misunderstanding about what literature courses aim to do. They don’t exist to make you like what you read; they exist to make you a better communicator. Many Humanities courses use literature and literary theory as a way to get you to start thinking differently and learning how to argue quickly verbally and in writing.

  25. The best and most cogent criticism is another work of literature. The ‘texts’ – the sources of Shakespeare’s plays – would bore us stiff if we tried to read them. Shakespeare exercised a creative critical intelligence on these old, turgid and lopsided tales, by writing immensely improved versions. The critical intelligence is crucial, but not primary.
    As an example of creative critical intelligence still alive and well at present, the best criticism I have read of the society and mindset of the world of Jane Austen, is Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourn,’ a novel that covers the time-frame of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ but from the point-of-view of the servants in the Bennet household. In it, we learn what the offhand phrase ‘the very shoe-roses for the ball had to be got by proxy’ actually involves for the servant who had to go and get them. It almost killed her.

  26. I’m late to the party on this one and not wishing to hijack the thread, but I’d be interested in knowing the commentariat’s thoughts regarding books on cd or via digital delivery systems such as audible.com. Once a voracious reader, that activity has been curtailed for me in recent years by the development of a defect in my visual field rendering the reading of small black type on white background difficult at best. My solution to this problem is to “read” a book via cd’s or downloading it from audible.com. My question is, must a reader derive meaning from a particular book by voicing that work in one’s own mental “voice” or can a book on cd’s narrator do an adequate job of relaying subtle subtext? For myself I have found that if I am intrigued by a particular book I will also buy a print (large, if available) copy and read those passages that are particularly beautiful or demand greater attention. Any thoughts?

    1. Great storytelling is great storytelling. I don’t think it really matters if you are hearing it or reading it.

    2. Audible is great. You can see from the reviews if the narrator is bad but I have found that they are quite good now. They almost act the story for you, slightly altering their voices. I’m right now reading & listening to The Man in the High Castle & it is well done.

  27. Thanks for a great post for us “readers”, as Bill Hicks would say.
    I just finished the first of two novels I spotted at the library by one of my favorite authors, Iain Banks. He recently died, and I thought I had sadly exhausted his published works, so I was thrilled to come across two more to enjoy. Stonemouth was very good, I’ll let you know how The Quarry compares very soon! If you haven’t heard of him before, a good place to start is with his celebrated debut novel The Wasp Factory, (at which the Irish Times famously sniffed, “rubbish”).

    1. Have you tried Ian M. Banks? He’s also very good! 🙂

      Seriously, though, his ‘Culture’ novels are amazing. It’s a tragedy that he died before his time – if he had had another twenty years, think of the extra books he could have left us.

  28. By the way, I’m seriously clipping and saving that great bon mot by Morson: “Nothing makes us less capable of empathy than consciousness of victimhood.”

    Now, why am I suddenly thinking of the GOP Presidential candidates’ election strategy?

  29. Excellent points! I have loved Raskolnikov & Scarlett O’Hara, both people I would absolutely detest in real life. I also cried when I finished the books, because I would miss them (well, I may have missed Rhett more than Scarlett) And curiously, I read those on my own without being told how to feel about them and still remember the parts that meant something to me.

    In large universities, teaching assistants who barely know anything are assigned to teach those humanities courses that science students take to fulfill distribution requirements (which are really only there to generate income for the department so they can lure grad student with the promise of assistantships).

    Fortunately, writers are still writing books with engaging characters who do interesting things, and they are writing them in delicious prose. Literature studies may be ruined but literature lives on.

  30. I have never studied literature at a uni – so, haven’t had any of these experiences. However, one of the things I learned in Political Science 1, was to be careful not to interpret the past, through modern lenses, as they may confound rather than clarify.

  31. The kind of close reading* of the texts that Jerry criticises has always seemed to me like a game of psychoanalytical bluffery, in that it parses the text, much as a psychoanalyst might study a patient, for clues that confirm the parsers beliefs and prejudices. Get two people to read it and they’ll disagree entirely about the meaning of the text yet agree that close reading can uncover objective truths about the psychology of the author. Get a hundred people, a thousand people, and they’ll all pretty much disagree, but they’ll still believe they’re uncovering reliable truths. It’s a giant, meaningless game, in which, as far as I can see, no epistemic progress is made and no epistemic progress can be made even in principle.

    In my opinion Freud’s influence on the humanities has been appalling – any old bluffer can come away from a ‘close reading’ with ‘clear evidence’ of such and such a latent bias on the part of the text’s author…I’ve been reading Hitchens’s essays in Arguably and even he’s guilty of it. There are various points in his writing where he references some seemingly opaque passage from an author’s work and declares it to be ‘clear’ evidence of ‘Oedipal hatred’, or ‘repressed guilt’. This is vapourous stuff(although it’s rare, and Hitchens’s writing is otherwise supremely enjoyable).

    It is the epistemic shorthand that Freud gifted all lazy writers in the humanities: the option of constructing an argument from thin air and supporting it with jargon-based references to unfalsifiable psychoanalytical inferences. You don’t have to do the hard work of justifying your argument empirically and rationally, you can just rely on symbolism and pseudo-scientific psychologising. It’s absolutely rife in the worst parts of the humanities and it does serious damage to their collective idea of truth, of what it means for something to be reliable.

    Before it could be taken seriously, the idea of scouring the text for ‘evidence’ of the writer’s prejudices needed the imprimatur of scientific respectability that Freud, Jung, Reich, etc. provided.

    Freud, as psychoanalysis’s revered figurehead, has been one of the most malign influences on the humanities in the last century, and it’s unsurprising that so many academics love him because he allows them to believe that they’re discovering objective truths through close reading. Authors often love him too – in his wake, narrative symbolism has become so much weightier and more significant…and so much easier. And, of course, the post-modernists, structuralists, deconstructionists, etc., who often overlap with the previously mentioned groups, use psychoanalytical methodology throughout their work.

    I think a fair amount of the intellectual confusion in the humanities can be blamed on Freud et al, and their fervent belief that they could glean truth without having any means of checking whether they were right.

    *is ‘close reading’ right? I’m thinking it means parsing the writing in order to discover signifiers of the author’s prejudices, beliefs, etc….

    1. Saul, I think you’re right. Read Frederick Crews on Freud if you haven’t already. You’ll LYAO.

      We have a professor at our U who teaches “Freudian” analysis of literature. To me, that’s like teaching astrological analysis of planetary positions.

      And yet, whenever I’ve brought Darwin into my classes, I’ve caught hell about it. Students shriek to High Heavens… My evaluations suck.

  32. I meant to say that the passages about Africa are beautiful. They remind me of a beautiful piece of writing from the start of The God Delusion where Dawkins reminisces about his childhood in Africa, looking up at the night sky surrounded by frangipani trees.

  33. I think another reason for literature going extinct is the presence of things like some aspects of “cultural studies”. Not all of it is like this, but what I remember seeing as an undergraduate seemed like weirdly done sociology, at best. Similarly for what I encountered later, the “rhetoric of science” – which would be a wonderfully interesting field if the *content* were on topic for some of these works. This is also in the context I met the ID guy, John Angus Campbell, which I didn’t get at the time was a creationist, effectively. Another example of religion being hidden by pomo-esque technique. I asked him if he had ever collaborated with a philosopher or realistic historian to further answer his title question, “Why Was Darwin Believed?” and he sort of shrugged and (now) I realize it was a “why would I do *that*” of ID, not of pomo exactly …

  34. I’m an English major and took English courses in grad school too. I lucked out with most of my professors, but on occasion I’ve encountered the sort of people to live to kill the desire to read.

    I don’t wish to write off literary theory, but it seems to me that many of the people in its thrall were bored with literature or felt themselves superior to it. They regarded authors with suspicion, guilty of soon-to-be-revealed thought crimes. Authors’ works would be as uncloaked as bundles of prejudices, justifications of repression, etc. Literature was nothing more than something you fed into the theory machine or a realm for quote-mining.

    Academia, especially in the liberal arts and English departments, is every bit as conformist as the outside world, perhaps more so, since liberal arts academics can be very tribal. Intellectual fashions run rampant and they take much longer to go out of style than ordinary ones. Students who embrace those fashions and ape the theories of famous theoreticians can go far in their profession.

    Those factors, along with the desire to not be financially crippled by further student loans, helped persuade me not to go for a graduate degree in English.

  35. I don’t know how many times I heard my children say, while in high school, “I wish they would just let me read the book, rather than annotating it.” It is classical condition: making the of reading classics to be sooo painful that they never attempt it again.

    I remember being amazed that they didn’t find Jane Austen to be as uproariously funny as I did. Given the process to which they were exposed and the approach discussed above, I now, unfortunately, understand.

  36. Come now Jerry, there are whole realms which science cannot teach us–what sugar tastes like, for example. Further, while sensation is subjective, in the sense that we are not making a 3rd person observation statement about something, in sensation there is a mediation between a thing and a subjectivity.

    In other words, color, sound, taste have some objective cause, and moreover, there is a fair amount of unanimity in judgments (sugar tastes good).

    Let’s even suppose that there is a “universal neurological signature” that accompanies sensation, so I can tell by a brain scan whether someone found a sensation pleasurable or unpleasurable (ridiculous, I know, given how much is context dependent, the caress of a lover versus a groper on the subway). There would be absolutely no way to know “what the fuss was about” unless you yourself had experienced a pleasurable sensation.

    The kids that are born with no capacity for pain sensations presumably envy those who feel pain (given the dangers of the condition). But they don’t know what pain is. . . and to the extent they understand anything about pain, it is based on what other people have told them in 1st person statements. You could imagine that if an intelligent species of organisms emerged somewhere with “pain” or the conceptual equivalent, there would be no concept of pain, and there would be no search for neurological signatures of pain (e.g. the neurological signature derives its meaning, “pain”, from the subjective phenomenon, in the absence of which it is not a signature/sign of something but simply an observable fact).

    I’m not trying to go all mystical or Wu or even non-naturalist here. But my biggest problem with scientism is that our grammar has a first person, a second person, and a third person, which can be personal or impersonal. The idea that the meaning of everything we say can be translated into a proposition in the 3rd person impersonal (and therefore subjected to empirical scientific scrutiny) is clearly not the case.

  37. I’m coming late to this, but I’ll just say I agree with the entire post most vehemently.

    One point in particular had me nodding in agreement, that of finding ‘symbols’ in a work. And the allied tendency of, shall we say the politically committed, to interpret everything in the work (whether a book, movie or TV series) in terms of their pet cause. (“No, doofus, [I feel like saying], it’s a story about a bank robbery. ‘Lefty’ may be called that because he’s left handed but it is NOT an examination of the social treatment of the differently abled. And Spike’s reading disability does _not_ imply that all dyslexics are budding criminals. FFS!”) And so on…

    I have, seriously, encountered people like that and they kill any discussion of the episode.


  38. I have also just read the post and essay. Excellent! It brought to mind what Robin Williams did for literature in Dead Poet’s Society. The humanities do not tell us “… anything about the world that we can’t learn through observation, testing, replication, and hypothesis…” but it does tell us how others may perceive and feel about it. Religion takes select pieces of literature and rather than viewing them as subjective perspectives with which we can empathize, assumes they are objective truths: : “Mrs. Park. We’ve read what Homer says about the afterlife, and what Plato says, and now we’re reading what Dante says, and they’re all different. Mrs. Park. Which one of them is true?”

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