Celebrating Literary Jeopardy!

I would have loved to participate in Literary Jeopardy!. The New Yorker details how the event unfolded, in advance of the recently published A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year by Tom Nissley:

“Wolf Wolfe Wolff Woolf” was the most popular category, probably because it was so much fun to say: “I’ll take ‘Wolf Wolfe Wolff Woolf’ for four hundred, Tom.” The contestants were formidably well read. Ruth Franklin knew the author of “Never Cry Wolf” (Farley Mowat; May 23rd). Eric Banks named the writer of whom Virginia Woolf said “she stinks like—well, a civet cat that had taken to street walking” (Katherine Mansfield; February 11th). And Lorin Stein improved on the name of Judy Blume’s sixth-grade heroine with “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Fuller” (March 8th).

The hardest category was “Before & After,” in which an acrostic-style clue offered a mashup that required a two-part answer in which the last word of the first half was the first word of the last half. Got that? Neither did the contestants. “Watergate whistleblowing author of ‘Blind Ambition’ who, in Kerouac’s original ‘On the Road’ scroll, still went by the name of his real-life inspiration, Neal Cassady.” Silence as the contestants chewed it over. It was Roger Craig who finally got it: John Dean Moriarty.

The book has been added to my to-read list!

How Does Great Literature Shape Us?

Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at The University of Nottingham, has a thought-provoking piece titled “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” in The New York Times in which he posits that we need scientific evidence that great literature shapes the human mind (i.e., us):

Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being. That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment.

I have never been persuaded by arguments purporting to show that literature is an arbitrary category that functions merely as a badge of membership in an elite. There is such a thing as aesthetic merit, or more likely, aesthetic merits, complicated as they may be to articulate or impute to any given work.

I don’t think this is something  that will be measured with success for the foreseeable future. I do think great literature shapes us in ways that is impossible to quantify; it is like objectively trying to explain a piece of art. Hence, I don’t disagree with this:

There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic and the state of the evidence. In fact I suspect it is worse than that; advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence — they don’t even think that evidence comes into it. While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is.

But what if one could design an experiment to test for rigor in literature’s impact. I think one NYT commenter makes a great point:

The impact of great literature in developing a reader’s moral or emotional sense, depends on the reader’s current state of moral/emotional development, (maturity), and the reader’s efforts in assimilating the literature. And it would seem to follow that the impact of such literature would also vary in both intensity and longevity, in correspondence with the maturity and efforts of the reader. So, in order to study the effects of literature, one would have to take these two variables into account,
and select a group of people whose maturity and efforts were similar enough to constitute a controlled group, and then test the impact of various literature on them,
in both intensity and longevity.

Another thoughtful comment:

It’s not all that hard, really, even if the particular question is the wrong question– why not ask “Does great literature *change* us?”– or is finally unanswerable. The mind, or the brain if you prefer, does a great many things to get itself through the day, and “literature” represents more or less exotic and alien variants of these (often mundane) activities, which are made recognizable and understandable to us. 

We are the things that cathect, and we are evidently quite happy to invest intangibles– ideas, religious beliefs, emotional constructs– as well as tangible objects with mental and emotional energy. That, simply, is the ground of our fascination with literature.

Literature is a form of communication that asks us to invest in ideas and worldviews that may not be our own, and to act as if they are, or could be, ours for the duration. When done well, it prods at one or more of our many limits and seeds our phenomenological ground, whatever that might mean to you. Whether this means that literature *bestows* something that we might value as “good,” or simply tweaks how our poor brains cope with the welter of information the world throws at them, may vary from person to person, or even from moment to moment within the same person. Aesthetic reward and moral enlightenment are not guaranteed, but nor are they forbidden or mutually exclusive. Literature gives us something in which we can invest, and then some moral or intellectual change happens, or does not.

Thinking about this a bit more, and the reason I didn’t title this post with the word “Better” in the title is because that’s such an elitist view. And so, the best comment I read is this one:

Professor Currie begins with an incorrect premise. The purpose of literature is not to make us morally better – nor does it serve an educational purpose to teach us how to live our lives. Literature is not a how-to manual; nor should it ever be placed in the self-help section of a library or bookstore.

The first purpose of literature – and perhaps its over-riding reason why we tell stories – belongs to the author him/herself. Why else would anyone put him/herself through the agony and ecstasy of creation in the first place? 

And the reason that writers write – or painters paint or composers compose – is to bring order out of the seeming chaos of living or reason out of the irrationality of existence. It is to make sense of what the author sees and chooses to define.

As for us readers, we hopefully can share the author’s vision and gain a better understanding of our planet (or galaxy) and those with whom we share it. 

I don’t believe that gaining an understanding of the confusing world we live in is a moral act. I think drawing order out of chaos is a more basic human instinct.

Worth reading Currie’s take and perusing the comments. I will reflect on this topic in a personal post I’m currently composing.

On Details, Imagination, and Living

A wonderful post on details and imagination from James:

When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? For most of us, it’s shutting off the alarm, which is often on our phones now. If you already have your phone, in hand, you will probably at least be tempted to check your texts, or facebook, or the weather. If you don’t do it then, you will almost certainly do it when you turn on your laptop in the cold morning light. Even before the digital age, we consumed information, first, even before we consumed food or other necessities. Growing up in the Northeast, I spent many winter mornings bathed in the soft glow of my old, titanic Mitsubishi tube television. It towered over me as I sat there, like a religious supplicant, waiting for its divine judgment. Two hour delay, or wait, wait CLOSED, victory! During those tense minutes watching the list of schools in my area scroll by along the bottom of the talking heads, I never felt hungry, or thirsty, or even tired in the cold dawn on all those winter mornings. I needed one thing, and one thing only. Details. I needed data, information, about how my day was going to play out. I needed to know. And I had discovered one of the strongest, and potentially most dangerous of human desires.

This is an interesting point, and I think it comes about for two reasons: 1) fiction is more readily available to us today, now than anyone in our real lives 2) it takes a certain amount of vulnerability to become invested in someone on a proactive basis, and so we choose to go with the easier world of fiction:

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve become filled with pseudo-emotions. People often seem more invested in fictional families, friends, and lovers, than their own.


(hat tip: Cheri Lucas)

On Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

No one has ever really read Ulysses. And if they try to convince you otherwise, they’re either lying or pulling your chain.

That’s what our high school English teacher used to tell us about James Joyce’s epic novel, Ulysses. The natural skeptic that I am, the day after I first heard this proclamation, I went to my local library and decided to check out the book. However, it didn’t happen. I found the book on the shelf, opened it up, and started reading:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: INTROIBO AD ALTARE DEI

It was at this point that I said, “Whaaa?” Nevertheless, I decided to keep reading. I finished the first page. The damage was done. I put the book back on the shelf, defeated. I realized that perhaps those who say that they have read Ulysses, they maybe read the first page, or even the first chapter. But I have a hard time believing that they’ve read the entire book and understood what they’ve read.

Here is Joseph Collins writing in the New York Times in 1922 (I echo his sentiment and appreciate the critique):

A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may understand and comprehend Ulysses, James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without going through a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from iteven from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of itsave bewilderment and a sense of disgust.

I recently met someone—let’s call her Emma—who mentioned that Ulysses is one of her favorite books. Curious, I inquired further. The conversation went like this:

Eugene: Wow, so you’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses? [Editor’s note: I am always careful to preface works of literature with an author’s name; for all I know, Emma might have thought I was talking about Tennyson’s poem of the same name]

Emma: Yes, it is one of my favorite books. I’ve put blood, toil, tears, and sweat into that book, and I am proud of having read it.

Eugene: Okay, I understand the tears, sweat, and the toil. But did you really bleed while reading Ulysses?

Emma: Yes. Paper cut!

So there you go. Apparently that’s what it takes to read Ulysses.

Question for the reader: have you read Ulysses? Have you, really?


[Resource: Analyzing Ulysses, in which Avinash Vora estimates that the book contains a (unique) vocabulary of 30,030 words. That’s incredible!]