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Approaching Literature

Page history last edited by Jayson Yeagley 13 years, 1 month ago

~ ~ Approaching Literature ~ ~

Now that you've studied the syllabus, I'd like to make some less formal introductory comments about the course.

First and foremost, I'd like to stress that this is an introductory course. 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 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. And I want 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.

~ Towards a Definition of Worthwhile Literature ~

So here's my first question, and I hope you notice that the nature of this question invites your personal opinion:

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" looking at, studying, closely, and literature that's far less artistically accomplished and unworthy of looking at, or 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.")

Make no mistake, this is not a simple question, but a semester-long question; we can only begin to answer it tonight. 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 serious art is like the difference between a Snickers bar and a full course meal. One is quickly consumed; it attracts us with its glossy wrapper, entices us with its sugar and fat, but ultimately it just weighs us down needlessly. (Unless you're young and you have one of those envious supermetabolisms!) The other feeds you, it sustains you, it's meaty, nutritious, building muscle and helping each and every cell work just right.

1. Worthwhile literature creates a lasting impression. It may be (1) provocative, (2) beautiful, (3) uncanny, and (4) brightly, shatteringly meaningful, causing ideas and feelings to reverberate long after the reading ends.


Less artistically accomplished literature leaves your head the moment you finish it. Once you finish reading, you immediately commence thinking about more important things, like where to do your food shopping next week. Think of the difference between watching a throwaway sitcom on TV as opposed to some powerful film you saw in the theaters recently, and you'll catch my drift here.

2. Worthwhile literature stretches the reader's 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…. We love the literary stuff from way back. I'd venture to bet (and I think I could get people like Joseph Campbell, the late great scholar who studied myth across cultures) that as long as we've had language, we've had literature. And inspired imaginings are still the key to great literature. They engage us. We use our imagination to build pictures in our minds, discover meanings. We enjoy the fact that meanings and pictures are ambiguous, awaiting our indivdidual interpretations.


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. We may be stunned by the work's "beauty," its strikingly handsome language or structure, the way in which the structure and the meaning housed within blend naturally and totally, complementing and reflecting each other. Great literature is verbal art in all its heady abstraction and vivid living color.


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, the vehicle for thought itself, is at best ordinary, at worst, hackneyed; nothing expressed transcends into that airy, weightless, colorless, ageless realm of abstract thought, feeling, or spirit.

~ ~ Sorry! A DIGRESSION: The problem with aesthetics....

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. This may sound circular, but it's a fancy way of asserting that beauty is, like the saying goes, in the eye of the beholder. Put another way by eminent literary critic Harold Bloom: "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).

If you want to get acquainted with aesthetics , you can read what some of the great philosophers have had to say about aesthetics, or you can read a passageabout beauty from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, or you can consider what a few influential English Romantic writers and critics have said about beauty and the work of art.

Still, it's true that aesthetic appreciation is highly subjective and personal. Although we attempt to establish objective criteria that reward certain works of literature for their surpassing aesthetic qualities, ultimately the individual, standing before the cut, decides whether the depths are awesome or not. And while many, including Harold Bloom (a distinguished, prolific Yale literary critic) 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. But that's another digression.

~ ~ ANOTHER DIGRESSION: The pleasures of reading....


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."

The Gutenberg Elegies

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 highbrow….

I think I've always loved books. 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. 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 has some of the greatest literature in our heritage…and even at the age of six I was moved and fascinated by that 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--made me schizophrenic! 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 those pesky Indians 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 anymore. In fact, my 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 my government, 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 andThat Was Then, This Is Now. The love affair that was kindled early was now fully stoked and the sparks went flying. And the fire still burns. Brightly.

Sven Birkerts in that book quoted above, The Gutenberg Elegies, describes working at Borders bookstore and seeing people wandering up and down the isles in search, it seemed, not of a book, but of an experience…they wanted a book that would 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 fan, the experience they were seeking, was 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.

It's an interesting question, 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 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 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 Flowerberg and suddenly they were on the blue highway, hitching toward California. It's a powerful transformation literature can create. It's a pleasure that can be shared or experienced solo.

End of digression.

Continuing with the differences between worthwhile (artistically accomplished) and less worthwhile/worthless (less artistically accomplished) literature….

4. 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.

5. 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.

~ Oh no!! Another DIGRESSION (not as long): The canon controversy

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.

The controversy arises when we consider that those "established standards" 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.

In summary: 

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.



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