One of my favorite authors, Gustave Flaubert was born on this day, December 12th in 1821. In his masterwork, Madame Bovary he wrote
What better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright…Haven’t you ever happened to come across in a book some vague notion that you’ve had, some obscure idea that returns from afar and that seems to express completely your most subtle feelings?
It is in this spirit I offer you Glenn C. Arbery’s fine book Why Literature Matters.
Our understanding of liberal arts goes all the way back to the first century BC when Marcus Terrentius Varro wrote an encyclopedia, Disciplinarum Libri IX (Nine Books of Disciplines.) Seven of the disciplines he discussed in it became our liberal arts: grammar, dialectic (or logic), rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine, and architecture. Of these, the so-called hard sciences are certainly at the forefront today with literature and art lost in the dust of the stampeding herd.
In our age of technology worship, we gravitate to that which can be arithmetically computed wherein hard and predictable answers prevail. The problem, of course, is that life bears little resemblance to that golden ring. Science, for all its bluster, is a poor tutor for life’s real questions. As H. L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
In his speech The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson said this
“Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”
In The American Scholar, Emerson calls us out of the fog, and describes what he calls “Man Thinking”. America was only sixty years old when he spoke those words in 1837, and we were still wrapped up in a parochial European mindset. He challenged his hearers to wake up and live their lives with depth and purpose.
That message has never been more relevant.
Literature is by definition immediately relevant because it speaks of the human condition. Ironically, we long for depth in our lives but content ourselves in shallow water. Our entertainment is banal and our conversations increasingly require a smaller and smaller vocabulary. We each have the same twenty-four hours available every day, but many of them are lived half-heartedly – nothing special.
Apart from the simple, trashy books which constantly drill to our lowest carnal elements, true literature calls to us a host of writerly advisors who push and pull us into moral dilemmas, forcing us to, as Socrates said: “know thyself.” Anaïs Nin said, “The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” Herein lies first the opportunity and ultimately the catalyst of real growth.
“Literature matters because nothing can better approach the form, in this sense, of life in its felt reality, as it is most deeply experienced, with an intelligence that increases in power the more it explores the most unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering. Without being specifically religious itself, it can give an experience of a common glory that intimates something otherwise unsayable about the nature of the Word through whom all things were made. It can turn the loss of life and meaning not only into the rediscovery of meaning but into an occasion of promissory joy.”
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD, AND THE WORD WAS WITH GOD, AND THE WORD WAS GOD. THE SAME WAS IN THE BEGINNING WITH GOD. ALL THINGS WERE MADE BY HIM; AND WITHOUT HIM WAS NOT ANY THING MADE THAT WAS MADE. IN HIM WAS LIFE; AND THE LIFE WAS THE LIGHT OF MEN. AND THE LIGHT SHINETH IN DARKNESS; AND THE DARKNESS COMPREHENDED IT NOT.
~JOHN 1: 1-5
THE ACTIVITY OF READING
To the Average Reader
This is a book for readers who cannot read. That may sound rude, though I do not mean to be. It may sound like a contradiction, but it is not. The appearance of rudeness and contradiction arises only from the variety of senses in which the word “reading” can be used.
The reader who has read thus far surely can read, in some sense of the word. You can guess, therefore, what I must mean. It is that this book is intended for those who can read in some sense of “reading” but not in others. There are many kinds of reading and degrees of ability to read. It is not contradictory to say that this book is for readers who want to read better or want to read in some other way than they now can.
For whom is this book not intended, then? I can answer that question simply by naming the two extreme cases. There are those who cannot read at all or in any way.: Infants, imbeciles, and other innocents. And there may be those who are masters of the art of reading—who can do every sort of reading and do it as well as is humanly possible.
Most authors would like nothing better than such persons to write for. But a book, such as this, which is concerned with the art of reading itself and which aims to help its readers read better, cannot solicit the attention of the already expert.
Between these two extremes we find the average reader, and that means most of us who have learned our ABC’s. We have been started on the road to literacy. But most of us also know that we are not expert readers. We know this in many ways, but most obviously when we find from some things too difficult to read, or have great trouble in reading them; or when someone else has read the same thing we have and shown us how much we missed or misunderstood.
If you have not had experiences of this sort, if you have never felt the effort of reading or known the frustration when all the effort you could summon was not equal to the task, I do not know how to interest you in the problem. Most of us, however, have experienced difficulties in reading, but we do not know why we have trouble or what to do about it.
I think this is because most of us do not regard reading as a complicated activity, involving many different steps in each of which we can acquire more and more skill through practice, as in the case of any other art. We may not even think there is an art of reading. We tend to think of reading almost as if it were something as simple and natural to do as looking or walking. There is no art of looking or walking.
Last summer, while I was writing this book, a young man visited me, He had heard what I was doing, and he came to ask a favor. Would I tell him how to improve his reading? He obviously expected me to answer the question in a few sentences. More than that, he appeared to think that once he had learned the simple prescription, success would be just around the corner.
I tried to explain that it was not so simple. It took many pages of this book, I said, to discuss the various rules of reading and to show how they should be followed. I told him that this book was like a book how to play tennis. As written about in books, the art of tennis consists of rules for manage each of the various strokes, a discussion of how and when to use them, and a description of how to organize these parts into the general strategy of a successful game. The art of reading has to be written about in the same way. There are rules for each of the different steps you must take to complete the reading of a whole book.
He seemed a little dubious. Although he suspected that he did not know how to read, he also seemed to feel that there could not be so much to learn. The young man was a musician. I asked him whether most people, who can hear the sounds, know how to listen to a symphony. His reply was, of course not. I confessed I was one of them, and asked whether he could tell me how to listen to music as a musician expected it to he heard. Of course he could, but not in a few words. Listening to a symphony was a complicated affair. You not only had to keep awake, but there were so many different things to attend to, so many parts of it to distinguish and relate. He could not tell me briefly all that I would have to know. Furthermore, I would have to spend a lot of time listening to music to become a skilled auditor.
Well, I said, the case of reading was similar, If I could learn to hear music, he could learn to read a book, but only on the same conditions. Knowing how to read a book well was like any other art or skill. There were rules to learn and to follow. Through practice good habits must be formed. There were no insurmountable difficulties about it. Only willingness to learn and patience in the process were required.
I do not know whether my answer fully satisfied him. If it didn’t, there was one difficulty in the way of his learning to read. He did not yet appreciate what reading involved. Because he still regarded reading as something almost anyone can do, something learned in the primary grades, he may have doubted still that learning to read was just like learning to hear music, to play tennis, or become expert in any other complex use of one’s senses and one’s mind.
The difficulty is, I fear, one that most of us share. That is why I am going to devote the first part of this book to explaining the kind of activity reading is. For unless you appreciate what is involved, you will not be prepared (as this young man was not when he came to see me) for the kind of instruction that is necessary.
I shall assume, of course, that you want to learn. My help can go no further than you will help yourself. No one can make you learn more of an art than you want to learn or think you need. People often say that they would try to read if they only knew how. As a matter of fact, they might learn how if they would only try. And try they would, if they wanted to learn.
Mortimer Adler, from How To Read A Book