Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Why Read? Why Read This?

In last month's Commentary magazine, literature professor Gary Morson writes about why undergraduates might not like to take literature courses.

He suggests that a lot of the dissective, theory-based and politically-drenched study of literature done today turns students off -- not that they necessarily disagree with the ideas produced by the dissection or theory criticism, but that those ideas are often things they already know. So there's no point in taking the class. Morson recalls a student who took a course on Huckleberry Finn she did not enjoy, and he asked her what she learned about the book. "We learned it said slavery is bad," she said. Morson said he thought that if you didn't know that before you read Huck Finn, then you needed something more than a literature course.

The article is long but worth the read. In summary, Morson says that the purpose of the best literature is to help people break free of what he calls "the prison of self" in order to see something about the world in a different way than we do as we sail on through our lives. The authors who create the most fully realized, fully authentic characters help us identify with them so that we might imagine what we would do in their shoes, or even what they might do in ours. Of course they are doing what the author wants them to do, but if the author is consistent in his or her vision of humanity and the humans that make it up, then those actions can be worth mulling over.

I'd agree (which I'm sure would relieve Morson no end were he ever to learn of it). In this space, I often review genre novels and other "mind candy" books because 1) I read a lot of them on the treadmill and 2) nobody's paying me to write big thinky pieces on big thinky books, so I only do that when I get a hankerin' to. And some of the highest-level genre fiction has something to say about humanity and its situation just as much as does any fine literary fiction; the Sir John Fielding mysteries from yesterday's post are good examples.

But I still like to wade into one of the great classics, even if it's only a few pages at a time at night before nodding off. I may have started Les Miserables when I was 43 and not finished it until after I turned 44, but I did finish it and I like to hope I'm the better for the slog. How would I react were I the unjustly accused Jean Valjean? Or Bishop Myriel? Would I be the rigid legalist Javert? If so, how would I respond when I found my legalism could not explain the world I saw? What would Valjean or Myriel or Javert do when confronted with this particular problem in my life? Which one would I want to be more like?

Although I love a lot of genre fiction, I never find myself asking what would I do if I were Captain Kirk. Not because I would not want to be Captain Kirk -- his social life is far better than mine, especially if you include interspecies romance, and he never fails to save the galaxy. But because I know what Captain Kirk is going to do: Make time with the green gal and kick some Klingon Sa'Hut. I read about him because I know he's going to win and I want to ride along, not because I want to know how he interprets human existence. I read Louis L'Amour because I know that bad guys who cross Sacketts become late bad guys and I like watching them lose. The paths of the vile villains and cunning sorcerers stop when they cross the mighty thews of the grim Cimmerian Conan, who deals out his wrath with a great and contagious gusto (It really is best to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women! Who knew?)

But I would ask those questions of a Karamazov brother or the nameless prisoner of the Chateau d'If or of Sidney Carton or Macbeth or Samantha "Sam" Hughes. I wouldn't do it, of course, if I didn't know how, and when I was 18 or 19 years old, I didn't. Morson's point is not enough literature courses teach students this empathic jailbreak from the cell of the self, and so they see no reason to repeat the dry parsing and culture-matching that happens in too many classrooms.

(As a postcript, it is worth noting that Professor Morson teaches at the beacon of wisdom and knowledge that is Northwestern University. Interestingly, the other Big 10 school in Illinois, known primarily for being a hotbed of Communism and the real-world example of  Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Hellmouth," also made the news recently, as the "top party school" in the United States.

Judge for yourself. And choose wisely)


CGHill said...

But ... slavery is bad, isn't it?

Friar said...

I believe so, but let me check my copy of Huck Finn...

(Previous comment removed to correct spelling)