Thursday, February 17, 2005

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

Edmundson works through a variety of ideas, but this text celebrates two central ideas: a work of literature is true, insofar as it represents life as it is--an ongoing, present tense "is"--and that literature helps us construct what he calls our "final narratives", or helps us establish for ourselves what is important and how we should live our lives. In short, he takes Matthew Arnold and Marcel Proust, and slams them together with Richard Rorty as he tries to convince the reader of his case.

Arnold's position, that literature may have to come to replace religion as a guide to life, seems less likely now with literature's relative obscurity in the place of popular culture, and has certainly fallen into disrepute in the academic world. Edmundson argues that it needs to be revitalised: that it's easy to apply readily forgotten theory to texts, and it's easy to research the texts, but what's difficult and most worth doing is to engage with the text itself and to ask what the texts ask of us, how they ask us to grow. This process is Emersonian, and Edmundson quotes him as saying "The life of man... is a self-evolving circle, which from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end." Edmundson expands upon this idea by quoting Proust's adage that "Reading... is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it, but does not constitute it," and suggests that it is this life of the spirit that is absent in classrooms. He suggests that that absence may well be why we have fewer and fewer students of humanities in universities these days, as this idea of literature as a touchstone falls further out of favour.

He laments students seeking entertainment instead of education, though he is sharply critical of an academy structured to provide just that. What a literary education does is to wake people out of the slumber induced by the opiate that is popular culture: reading, he tries to convince us, is a powerful force that does more than entertain (and herein lies the distinction between Faulkner and Stephen King), but provokes growth and challenge. Proust comes up again as Edmundson tries to say that a lasting work of literature is one that offers deep, meaningful opportunities for this type of engagement:
It seems to me that they would not be my readers but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician used to offer his customers--it would be my book but with it I would furnish them the means of reading what lays inside themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whether 'it really is like that.' I should ask whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written."

This idea of Proust's begins the conversation with the question, does this text live? The most compelling comment that Edmundson shares with us comes from Lionel Trilling.
Describing his initiation into modern literature, into Kafka, Joyce, Proust, and their contemporaries, Lionel Trilling writes: "Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me, and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has become very intimate."

Do the texts we read live? If they don't, what fault is it of ours? Edmundson wants this long essay to make us ask ourselves that question, and to take reading seriously.

So there's a summary of the book. Here's what I think.
I take reading seriously.
You have only to take the briefest of glances at how I spend my free time, my money, my thought--this very blog--to see that. This book of Edmundson reads like an argument for the existence of God: it's convincing only insofar as the person hearing the proof already believes. Why Read? hectors, dares, challenges, and never really becomes persuasive, as it would need to if it wants to affect non-readers.

I look to literature as I look to religion, as ideas that I need to examine to determine how to live my life aright. I'm not convinced, though, that we should sell the study of literature as being the modern day vision of a seminary. I think that the study of literature is something that should be shared among those who care deeply about books, and that that's something that we pass on to others we encounter almost like a particularly benevolent virus. Let's take reading seriously because we enjoy stories, and let's leave books like Why Read? on the shelf, taken down only to offer us points to debate.