As I am writing this, it is early November, 2018. It has been a rough couple of weeks in my little academic universe, and in the broader world that surrounds it.
First, the faculty members at our University decided that a dedicated literature course was no longer a necessary element of our core undergraduate requirements.
After that, in quick succession, the following occurred:
- Here in St. Paul, Minnesota, our campus was rocked by racist and racially intimidating messages posted on the dormitory door of an African American student at our school.
- In Louisville, Kentucky, a man with an assault weapon first cased a Black church, then proceeded to a grocery store and shot two African American customers. When confronted after the shooting by nother citizen, the shooter said: “Don’t shoot me, I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.”
- In Florida, a man was arrested after sending multiple mail bombs to people and organizations he regarded as political “enemies” because of their party affiliations or their criticisms of President Trump.
- Finally, in Pittsburgh, a gunman spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories shot up a Jewish synagogue worship service, killing 11 and wounding many more.
What does any of these events, aside from the decision to remove the literature requirement from my university’s core curriculum, have to do with the subject of this blog? Well, in my view there is a connection between what kinds of reading are taught, practiced, and valued in our society and the actual policies and actions that predominate in our society as a whole.
And I am left to wonder, particularly with reference to the bullet points above:
What have these folks been reading? Are there collections of poetry, short stories, novels, literature of any kind on their bookshelves? Where did they get their information or ideas about the people or the groups or the organizations they attacked? What kinds of language did those information sources use to describe the objects of their violence?
For instance, if we went into the home of the Louisville shooter would we have seen any books of poems by Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, or Claude McKay? Or any short stories by Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison? Or any of the plays of August Wilson? Or if we looked at his computer’s search history would we have found any visits to websites featuring or discussing the work of any of these great writers? I might be wrong, but I suspect that the answer to these“for-instance” queries would be “no.”
Why do I think it matters what these folks might or might not have on their bookshelves? I’ll try to explain it in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a literature snob.
Evils like racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia exist at least in part because human beings’ perception is often short-circuited by our impulses to simplify complex matters, to have our own assumptions confirmed, and to see things in terms of our own self-interest. I touched on this idea in an earlier post on this blog, when I discussed Viktor Shklovsky’s concerns about the “automatization” of our perception–the way in which our everyday habits of seeing and thinking reduce the world around us to simplistic, ready-made formulae that are convenient and gratifying, but ultimately false.
We must often make a special effort to make sure that our perceptions and our responses to others around us are deeply rooted in an understanding of the realities that define the lives of those others, and the shared humanity that compels our sympathy and respect for them. Reading literature encourages us to make this special effort, and gives us practice in doing so, precisely through the qualities by which Shklovsky defines the “literary”: that special kind of difficulty (and that special kind of pleasure) that encourages us to SLOW DOWN THE PROCESS OF PERCEPTION so that our assumptions don’t run ahead of our actual experience and understanding.
As Shklovsky noted, it’s easy for our perception to become “automatized”—that is to say, for assumptions, prejudices, half-truths, generalizations, and outright untruths to substitute for deeper truth-seeking and truth-seeking about the world around us, including other people. And the temptation of this automatization is all the more powerful when it produces the junkie’s high of confirming our own beliefs and priorities. The special purpose of literature and of “literary” reading is to break that automatism and compel our close attention to, and contemplation of, an experience or worldview other than our own.
In reading literature we are challenged to experience what is truly being said, not what we expect, wish, or casually assume is being said. We expand our understanding and sympathy by imaginatively experiencing the world through the words and perceptions of another rather than forcing our reading experience into the already-set patterns of our own expectations and assumptions.
I believe that the discipline of “close-reading” literature is not just an academic practice. It is a social, philosophical, and even a spiritual practice that is crucial to the effective functioning of a diverse society such as our own. This kind of reading helps us to inhabit and identify with the perspective of the speaker in Langston Hughes’s “Theme For English B,” regardless of what race we are; to feel at a visceral level the mutilated selfhood of the female protagonist in Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll,” regardless of our sex or gender; and to be torn by the moral dilemma of the motorist in William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” regardless of whether we have had the power of life and death over another living creature.
My point is that is matters what we read, but it also matters how we read it. So, WHAT WE SAY and HOW WE SAY IT matters. But even more important, HOW WE LISTEN, HOW WE READ, and HOW WE PAY ATTENTION matters even more.
But as anyone involved in close encounters with literature knows, inhabiting a poem in this way is hard work. It takes attention to every detail of language, it takes imaginative projection into the thoughts and feelings of another, and sometimes it even takes a little research to check and correct our initial impressions. But it’s what we do to be more responsible and more skilled readers.
This is why I teach literature, and why the challenges of it are as fresh and meaningful for me now as they were when I began teaching over 40 years ago. It’s because the close study of literature has the ability to make us more human, and better humans. It has the ability to make us more careful and sensitive stewards of the language that we use in our daily interactions with others. A work of literature, like any work of human hands, may have its flaws and its blind spots. But every good work of literature challenges us as readers to be the most attentive and sympathetic readers we can be–the very opposite effect of language that engages in stereotypes, prejudicial beliefs, and open slurs against others among us.
My take-away from my own experience of reading, teaching, and writing about literature boils down to what I feel are three basic “deep truths” that are unique to the literary experience. Not coincidentally, these “deep truths” stand in opposition to the kind of thinking (and the habits of reading) that appear to stand behind the violent actions alluded to at the beginning of this post. In contrast to much of what we find on the internet and on social media, literature helps us cultivate the following habits of truth:
- Things are almost always more complex, rather than more simple, than we would like to think.
- Deeper truths tend to surprise us and challenge our assumptions rather than confirm them.
- The deeper we go into the story of any person or group, the more reason we have for sympathy, love, and identification rather than fear and hate.