The (dis)pleasure of reading.

A science writer with the George R. Brown School of Engineering, Rice University, Huston,Texas, Patrick Kurp, blogging under the name Anecdotal Evidence, wrote this dispiriting piece today.  

`A Certain Lightness of Heart’

Since going to work for the university nine months ago I have enjoyed two extended literary conversations on campus – one with a professor of Slavic Studies, the other with my boss after she read, at my suggestion, Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel Offshore. My pleasure was rooted in the mutual pleasure we took in Zbigniew Herbert and Fitzgerald. Books can spawn enthusiastic kinship among people who otherwise are strangers.

The contrast when I have spoken with faculty or graduate students in the English Department has been, without exception, dramatic and discouraging. To them, reading seemed an odious obligation, like scrubbing the toilet. One grad student couldn’t get over her surprise when she learned that I, who work with engineers, had actually read a book from beginning to end. When I mentioned I had just reread Emerson’s essay on Montaigne, and that Montaigne was among my literary heroes, she delivered a lecture on Foucault’s dismissal of the great essayist. I countered that Foucault was a degenerate not to be taken seriously by intelligent people, and so another literary conversation foundered on the shoals of politics and fashionable theory. In The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: Aspects of English Literary Life Since 1800, John Gross ably diagnosed the malady:

“Isn’t there a certain basic antagonism between the very nature of a university and the very spirit of literature? The academic mind is cautious, tightly organized, fault-finding, competitive – and above all aware of other academic minds…Think of the whole idea of regarding literature as a discipline. Literature can be strenuous or difficult or deeply disturbing; it can be a hundred things – but a discipline is not one of them. Discipline means compulsion, and an interest in literature thrives on spontaneity, eager curiosity, the anticipation of pleasure; it is unlikely that a reader who comes to a book under duress, or weighed down with a sense of duty, will ever really read it at all, however much he may learn about it. Even the most intensely serious literature needs to be approached with a certain lightness of heart, if it is to yield its full intensity.”

This grad student and others I have met treated books as an annoyingly necessary addendum to the real subject, which was their favorite brand of politics masquerading as criticism. None displayed “spontaneity, eager curiosity, the anticipation of pleasure”– much too bourgeois. None seemed happy to be studying what he or she had chosen to study. None seemed to have read very broadly or deeply. These unhappy thoughts came to me as I started reading Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James. Two-thousand and seven, little more than three months on, has seen publication of two necessary books – James’ and Collected Poems: 1956-1998, by Zbigniew Herbert. Both fit the prescription James himself formulates in his introduction:

“If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into the new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.”  

Literature is a long, rewarding, mutually sustaining conversation between writers and readers, writers and writers and, of course, readers and readers. What is needed to sustain the conversation is humility, imagination and a capacity for finding pleasure in the artful arrangement of words. In that way, we might remain human in an inhuman age. 

# posted by Patrick Kurp @ 3:43 AM 1 comments  

I should be happy if I could say that things were much different in England. Unfortunately, they are not. A lot of what passes for learning how to read – by that I mean learning how to read novels has not much to do with actual reading and a lot to do with being able to recognize what is faithful in screen adaptations of those novels. Almost all recent conversations I have had about Jane Austin novels have generally come quickly around to whether or not the recent screen adaptations are faithful. Once I get to that point, I usually give up. There is not much point in talking about what Jane Austin actually wrote – her artful arrangement of words on the page have become secondary.


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