Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Why literature matters and other stuff

It is probably no surprise that declining rates of literary reading coincide with declining levels of historical and political awareness among young people. One of the surprising findings of ''Reading at Risk" was that literary readers are markedly more civically engaged than nonreaders, scoring two to four times more likely to perform charity work, visit a museum, or attend a sporting event. One reason for their higher social and cultural interactions may lie in the kind of civic and historical knowledge that comes with literary reading.

Unlike the passive activities of watching television and DVDs or surfing the Web, reading is actually a highly active enterprise. Reading requires sustained and focused attention as well as active use of memory and imagination. Literary reading also enhances and enlarges our humility by helping us imagine and understand lives quite different from our own.

Indeed, we sometimes underestimate how large a role literature has played in the evolution of our national identity, especially in that literature often has served to introduce young people to events from the past and principles of civil society and governance. Just as more ancient Greeks learned about moral and political conduct from the epics of Homer than from the dialogues of Plato, so the most important work in the abolitionist movement was the novel ''Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Likewise our notions of American populism come more from Walt Whitman's poetic vision than from any political tracts. Today when people recall the Depression, the images that most come to mind are of the travails of John Steinbeck's Joad family from ''The Grapes of Wrath." Without a literary inheritance, the historical past is impoverished. (Boston Globe)

With any luck future generations won't judge Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby by what shows up on the big screen: the lastest version is to star Paris Hilton as Daisy Buchanan and Lance Bass from N Sync as Jay Gatsby himself. (BBC)

An interesting array of writers and critics remember Saul Bellow in Slate. I was most interested in what Jonathan Rosen had to say ("That's what Bellow's presence in the world was like, a kind of sheltering genius, because he was able to see the world and transmute it with accuracy and wonder—and the more accurate he was the more wonder you felt, so that mimesis took on an almost mystical aura which, dark as Bellow could be, seemed to suggest something hopeful about the universe, and elevated the role of the writer to the highest possible sphere") since I'll be reading Joy Comes in the Morning in a day or two; and that of Thomas Mellon, who was last seen disparaging Geraldine Brooks' March (which I'll finish before the day's over), now asserting that "any writer" (i.e., Thomas Mellon not being gutsy enough to use first person in his pronouncements) feels "a trace of relief at his passing."

Another novelist who's eschewed magic realism in his writing is Ian McEwan, who has evidently passed that dislike onto the main character in Saturday. In an interview with Salon, McEwan says

One of the privileges of writing novels is to give characters views that you have fleetingly but that are too irresponsible for you ever to defend. You can give them to a character. His views on magical realism, I could never really ... I know there are some great novels in that vein. But still, I do have a streak of skepticism about it. So Henry Perowne could work this up for me on my behalf.

McEwan also questions the worth of contemporary fiction: "If you haven't already read The Charterhouse of Parma or The Secret Agent or The Brothers Karamazov or Middlemarch, why not be reading those?"

A contemporary novel I'll probably read before I ever turn to The Charterhouse of Parma (which, by the way, is the book Karel can never finish in Drabble's The Realms of Gold) is Stewart O'Nan's The Good Wife, reviewed this week by Meg Wolitzer (Washington Post).

And one of these days I'm going to read Temple Grandin's books instead of merely reading about her--this time in Bookslut--because she always comes across as an absolutely fascinating human being.

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