Now that you’ve had a chance to entertain some fundamental questions about literature, I’d like to make some less formal introductory comments about the course.
First and foremost, as much as I may want to, I can’t expect to expose you to even a respectable fraction of all the great literature that’s available, waiting, lurking in the libraries and the bookstores–maybe even on your own bookshelf…so my goal, and I hope it’s a realistic one, is to inspire you to keep reading beyond this course. In this visual age of the “death of the book,” it would be a victory, for example, if at the end of the semester you decided you wanted to keep this textbook rather than sell it back.
Aside from wanting you to enjoy literature enough to read it on your own, I also want to help you acquire the critical thinking tools you’ll need to get the most out of literature when you do take the time to read it. I’d like you to stop thinking about being critical as being something nasty and evil and start thinking about being critical as being something intelligent and worthwhile. I want to share with you some criteria you can use to help you choose literature you’ll find personally rewarding, whatever your individual taste.
Can We Define “Worthwhile Literature”?
This question is potentially the beginning of an interesting discussion. It’s a question that certainly invites everyone’s input.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WORTHWHILE AND WORTHLESS LITERATURE?
Or, to put the question in a more long-winded way: What’s the difference between literature that’s artistically accomplished and “worth" studying closely, and literature that’s artistically unaccomplished and unworthy of studying closely? (What do I mean by "worth” here? I think I mean something like “worth our time because it’ll enrich us somehow, someway. It’ll be rewarding either emotionally or intellectually.)
Make no mistake, this is not a simple question, but a semester-long question; we may begin to answer it, but we probably can’t be definitive. I can provide a few starters, but ultimately this is a problem every reader solves individually: what’s worth reading?
The difference between commercial art and fine art is like the difference between a Snickers bar and a full course meal. Commercial art functions for us like junk food: it’s quickly consumed; it attracts us with its glossy wrapper, satisfies us temporarily with its high sugar and tasty fat, but ultimately it just weighs us down needlessly. (Unless you have one of those enviable super-metabolisms!) Literature that’s more artistic functions within us more like a full course meal: it feeds our needs, sustains us; it’s healthy and nutritious, building muscle and helping each and every cell work just right.
So like a full course meal, literature has a sustained and sustaining effect. We might say it creates something in us that lasts. Let’s put it this way:
1. Worthwhile literature creates a lasting impression. It may be (1) provocative, daring us to voice our response, (2) beautiful, dazzling us in some striking way that arrests and holds our attention, (3) uncanny, puzzling us with its strangeness and filling us with wonder that anyone could have thought up or experienced such a thing, (4) ambiguous, inviting us to entertain more than one possible meaning, expanding our typically narrow way of perceiving things from one point of view, OR (5) especially meaningful, leading us to new insights and epiphanies, offering us an understanding of ourselves and our world that we might never have otherwise received.
Less artistically accomplished literature leaves your head the moment you finish it. It gives you nothing to feel that isn’t temporary and vanished once consumed. There’s nothing to provoke or dazzle or wonder or think about. There’s time spent but nothing gained by it. Once you’ve finished reading you turn your focus to more important things.
2. Worthwhile literature stretches the imagination. It’s a fact about people–we like to use our imaginations! We’ve been developing literature practically forever. The earliest records of our civilizations contain literature in the form of mythical stories, epic poetry, tragedies, comedies, poetic odes in celebration of cultural heroes; poster boys like Gilgamesh, Moses, Achilles and Odysseus…. not to mention the femme fatales like Helen of Troy, or Medea. We have loved literature a long time. As long as we’ve had language, we’ve had literature. And imagination is still the key to great literature. An imaginary work engages us in ways reality doesn’t. With language we can create entire mental landscapes, and it’s fun. We don’t always like everything to be familiar and comfortable. We like to discover new people and places, explore situations we might not get a chance to experience in real life, and literature provides this opportunity. Imagination takes us there.
Less artistically accomplished literature is predictable, stale, easily anticipated, nothing new. It’s a formula. The characters are types, maybe even offensive stereotypes. We are obviously not enlightened by the presence of any new vision, and we quickly skip to the end to confirm what we already predicted; we’ve read/heard/seen this before. There’s no reason to get involved; there’s nothing for us to imaginatively add. If we stick with these works at all, we do so passively, as a way of turning off our minds and escaping. We get the feeling when we’re done that we just wasted a lot of time.
3. Worthwhile literature presents an aesthetically pleasing experience. You may want to look up "aesthetics” on the web (try Wikipedia.com) and think about the different ways various aesthetic theories might be applied to literature. In A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, Joyce’s hero, Stephan Daedalus, echoes Thomas Aquinas by holding that beauty is to be found in harmony, clarity, and balance; how might this be applied to literature? When we read we sometimes are struck by the work’s “beauty.” This is an aesthetic response. We may be stunned by the work’s elegant or expressive language, the pleasing way it sounds, or the beauty of the images it evokes. We may be struck by the intricacy of its structure, or the way in which the structure and the meaning blend so naturally and totally, complementing and reflecting each other. Great literature is an art of words, a striking verbal performance.
Less artistically accomplished literature does not strike the reader as beautiful in any way. There are no expertly turned sentences to dazzle us, no pith, no poignancy, no imagery to awe us. Language is at best ordinary, at worst, hackneyed; nothing expressed moves us into that airy, weightless timeless state of arrested attention. Time ticks away. We had better things to do.
The greatness of a work of literature is at least partly measured by its aesthetic power, a power measured by its power to evoke an aesthetic appreciation in its reader. I apologize for sounding circular, but it’s a fun way of asserting that beauty is, like the saying goes, in the eye of the beholder. However, eminent literary critic Harold Bloom asserts something a little different when he claims, “Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions. To quarrel on its behalf is always a blunder” (Western Canon 17). Bloom wants to assert that if he thinks it’s beautiful and you don’t, well then you are the one who’s “incapable of grasping” how beautiful it really actually is, so there’s no use trying to persuade you. Some might accuse Bloom of being a snob. Do you think he’s right or wrong?
It’s hard to deny that aesthetic appreciation–the response to beauty–is highly subjective and personal. Although we attempt to establish objective criteria that reward certain works of literature for their surpassing aesthetic qualities, I am inclined to believe that ultimately it’s the individual standing before the cut who decides whether the depths are awesome or not. And while many, including Harold Bloom, believe that great works of literature are an acquired taste, an “elitist phenomenon” (Western Canon 16), I don’t believe it. I believe that anyone with an open mind, a strong, working imagination, and an appreciation of the solitary pleasures of reading will respond to great works. The problem is that today many have lost that last essential ingredient–an appreciation for the solitary pleasures of reading. We’ve substituted TV, film, Internet…and lost much.
In The Gutenberg Elegies Sven Birkerts wrote:
“There is one other place of sanctuary. Not a physical place–not church or a [therapist’s] office–but a metaphysical one. Depth survives, condensed and enfolded, in authentic works of art. In anything that can grant us true aesthetic experience. For this experience is vertical; it transpires in deep time and, in a sense, secures that time for us. Immersed in a ballet performance, planted in front of a painting, we shatter the horizontal plane. Not without some expense of energy, however. The more we live according to the lateral orientation, the greater a blow is required, and the more disorienting is the effect. A rather unfortunate vicious cycle can result, for the harder it is to do the work, the less inclined we are to do it. Paradoxically, the harder the work, the more we need to do it. We cannot be put off by the prospect of fatigue or any incentive-withering sense of obligation.
What is true of art is true of serious reading as well….If we do read perseveringly we make available to ourselves, in a most portable form, an ulterior existence. We hold in our hands a way to cut against the momentum of the times. We can resist the skimming tendency and delve; we can restore, if only for a time, the vanishing assumption of coherence. The beauty of the vertical engagement is that it does not have to argue for itself. It is self-contained, a fulfillment.”
4. Worthwhile literature can influence your personal development, your identity, your sense of self, in ways you may or may not be aware of.
I think I’ve always loved books, as far back as I can remember (and you may be aware by now I like to spread that love around if I can). I’ve read many that have had a profound impact on me. Have you ever read a book that you feel influenced your self? Was there a book back there in your young person past that you feel defined the old(er) person you are today? If I think about the defining books in my own reading past, I can come up with quite a few, and they’re not necessarily “highbrow."
Before I could even read I memorized a book called Fortunately, Unfortunately, impressing my kindergarten teacher with my "reading skills” by reciting the entire book. My experience with that book, my ability to memorize it, helped me emerge from my kindergarten cocoon. It was a really funny book and I loved hearing it so much, I memorized it easily.
Then I fell in love with a story from the Bible–Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors. I read it over and over once I learned to read (I had a nifty child’s edition). The Bible, whether or not you personally believe it is a sacred text, has some of the greatest literature in our heritage; even at the age of six I was moved and fascinated by the Joseph story–the love of father for son/son for father, but the troublesome favoritism (and didn’t the Old Testament God play favorites with his Hebrew children?), the horrible image of the pit, the fascination of dreaming and dream interpretation, the cruelty of the brothers, the luck, the intelligence, the amazing bigness of Joseph and his ability to forgive. My attraction to this story probably shaped me as a reader for the rest of my life.
But I also remember a book called Caddie Woodlawn (a girl’s adventures out on the rugged frontier) and several books written for youngsters about the lives of great Native American warriors (Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and especially Geronimo)–those books were always bittersweet. On the one hand, they fired my imagination, mesmerized me–put me all over the map. Simultaneously I wanted to be Caddie–the white daughter of frontiersmen who never seemed to question their divine right to invade a frontier already populated by natives who kept attacking them–and I wanted to be a member of Geronimo’s tribe, or Geronimo himself (a little gender flexibility was necessary there)–all in the absolute worst way. On the other hand, these narratives filled me with sadness, because the native culture I was so enthralled by didn’t exist in my Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood, or anywhere (it seemed) anymore. In fact, I learned how the government had tricked or killed or cheated practically all of the Indians I loved so much, slaughtering in the most horrific way most of the buffalo which lay at the center of their culture. This, along with Watergate and Vietnam, didn’t make me particularly fond of authority, but that’s another digression! Walking the endless concrete rows back and forth to school, to the playground, to the shopping mall, I quickly discovered that the only way I could enter this beloved realm of adventure was to read the books, more and more books. And then in my rebellious preteen years I came across two immensely influential books–The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now. The love affair that was kindled early was now fully stoked and the sparks went flying. That fire is still burning brightly.
Sven Birkerts also writes in The Gutenberg Elegies about working at Borders bookstore and seeing people wandering up and down the isles in search, it seemed to him, not of a book, but of an experience, a book to transport them. These people were not simply looking for escape, although escape became a byproduct of the experience; more than escaping, they were transforming, transporting their consciousness inward. The flame they hoped to fan, the experience they were seeking, seemed to be an inward one. Here’s Birkerts describing his own experience with books:
….I read. I moved into the space of reading as into a dazzling counterworld. I loved just thinking about books, their wonderful ciphering of thought and sensation. I was pleased by the fact that from a distance, even from a nearby but disinterested vantage, every page looked more or less the same. A piano roll waiting for its sprockets. But for the devoted user of the code that same page was experience itself. I understood that this was something almost completely beyond legislation. No one, not even another reader reading the same words, could know what those signs created once they traveled up the eyebeam.
Reading, reading well, is above all a means of turning on an inward light, and it creates such a powerful impact that it transforms a person’s consciousness.
Whether you remember a special book is an interesting question for us all to entertain, I think. If it wasn’t a book that changed you, was it a movie, a TV show? A video game? From what avenue of culture did the defining influence come? A song? A band? Did you listen to a certain song and come away transformed forever? Were there one or several influences you can point to–a book, a story, a TV show, a movie, a song, a painting–that helped turn you into the person you are today?
In the generation just before mine, a defining book was On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The number of people who were influenced by this book is probably inestimable. Ironically, though, many of the baby boomers who were deeply influenced by this book testify that they can’t even read the thing today, they think it’s so bad…but it captivated them at the time. They stood before it in absolute awe; and it changed them. They morphed. They were standing up straight and suddenly they slouched. They were living in a Burg and suddenly they were on the blue highway, hitching toward California. It’s a powerful transformation literature can create. And the nice thing is that culturally, it’s a pleasure that can be shared or experienced solo.
5. Worthwhile literature communicates across cultural boundaries–because its message is universal–and across centuries–because the truth it expresses is timeless. Shakespeare’s drama can play across the globe in cultures remote from Elizabethan Britain. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, despite its pointed, relentless indictment of certain tendencies in American culture, provokes tears in Japan (admittedly, the cultures are somewhat similar, though the differences are striking). Americans fell in love with Zenmaster Luke Skywalker and the whole notion of the Taoist-inspired “force,” enjoying his very Oriental, very Japanese, swordplay.
Less artistically accomplished literature is embedded/cemented permanently in the time and place in which it was created. Although it may capture the zeitgeist, it never transcends it; never reaching beyond its immediate milieu, its meanings will fade with time, and when enough time goes by, its relevance will completely vanish. You’ll have to consult special historical reference works to make much sense of it at all. It’ll seem either amusingly antiquated or deadly dull.
6. Worthwhile literature will be accepted into the “canon,” the always controversial, never-agreed-upon body of great literature–the “A LIST.”Who gets to be in the canon? Who will we require our children and our college students to read? Who will we suggest represents the best our culture has to offer? Only the “best” literature is included in the canon…
Less artistically accomplished literature will be dropped from nearly everyone’s reading list a few years, maybe sooner.
The controversy arises when we consider that established standard of “excellence” are extremely difficult to agree upon. Many have argued that traditionally these standards have been unfairly biased, privileging white males–that the Western tradition has excluded females and minorities. These arguments have helped “open up” the canon to work that were previously, wrongly ignored. The term “canon” comes from the Greek “kanon,” which means “rod, rule.” It also recalls the books of the Bible that have been officially recognized. Keeping these definitions in mind, we can perhaps see that, as used in reference to literature, the “canon” refers those works which have met or exceeded the established standards for literary greatness and have therefore been “officially recognized” by the academy as worthwhile objects of study.
What book or books have you read that you believe, unreservedly, belong in the “canon”? What canonical books have you studied that you believe don’t deserve to be there?
Formulaic, clichéd, non-complex: that somewhat sums up the throwaway variety of literature.
Provocative, meaningful, complex, ambiguous: that somewhat sums up the built-to-last variety of literature.