Things You Could (Have) Do(ne) Over Break #3: Literature Edition

Why literature? Because it’s good for you and tastes better than brussel sprouts.

~Use THIS, which is glorious, to teach narrative, interpretation, personification, metaphor, whatever. Or just watch it. It’ll be a highlight of your day. Promise;

~Consider irony. Don is doing it. And in response to the article that prompted his reflections, many others did too, though they came to different conclusions about the merit of the original piece (as here and here);

~Check out this article on the top Literary Heroines of 2012 (with links to other such lists) or this list of great books from 2012 (Hologram for a King was entrancing; I read it in two sittings only because I wanted to slow the experience down a bit to enjoy it longer. Really, really great.) or this longer one (with poetry!);

~Think about translation and how it affects what you read (you read stuff in translation, right? RIGHT?)

~Read up on the various perspectives and associated controversies surrounding the latest Nobel Prize Laureate, Mo Yan (whose book, for the record, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out was one I enjoyed greatly) and the difficult intersections of politics, language, and art;

~Let Poetry make you weird;

~Have you read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet? I loved it when I was in college. I’ve been a little fearful to go back to it, lest it disappoint, and it hasn’t come up since, except in my own mind when Alexandria is mentioned. It was in those books that I first found C.P. Cavafy, whose work I love. And someday, I hope to visit. In the meantime, I was happy to find this;

~Learn about Wayne Booth’s helpful distinctions of narrator, implied author, and actual author (or at least the implied author part) as applied to political punditry. Or, learn about Wayne Booth. He was awesome;

~Read about epigraphs and their history, one way that books talk to each other, as Umberto Eco might put it.

~Did you know “Toni Morrison” is a pen name? Or that she did this with Rokia Traore (who put on one of the most amazing live music experiences I’ve ever had–you should check her out if and when she comes back to town) I didn’t, until I read this;

~Imagine life as an editor. Nothing but commas everywhere. And errors;

~Read this absorbing essay about Literature and Digital Humanities. A bit of it:

At the advent of print, the humanities emerged, under the aegis of Erasmus and others, to negotiate the spread of the classical tradition out of the monasteries into private hands. Today, with the advent of the Internet, Google’s self-described project is to make the world’s information “universally accessible and useful.” Academia could have done what humanists have done throughout history and tried to add to Google’s mandate: make the texts legible and available. They could have tried to bring out the contemporary relevance that only historical context, knowledge of literary tradition, and scholarly standards can provide. But this ancient task was anathema, for the simple reason that it would have involved honest work. Much easier to remain in the safe irrelevance of mass publication in the old mode, what Kingsley Amis called “the pseudo-light it threw on non-problems.” For at least 50 years, humanities departments have been in the business of creating problems rather than solving them.

All in all, it’s fair to say that the conversion of literature into data could not have gone much worse, which does not bode well for the second, oncoming phase, where we decide what to do with the literary data we now have…

But the really great part of the essay (I think) comes in the second half when the author discusses literature as “resistance to data.”  Which is another reason to love Lit.

~Read a difficult book; or, better (?) read about other people’s picks for the ten most difficult books;

~Check out these two interviews with Junot Diaz (here and here)–both great;

~Or find some other author talking about her or his book;

~Read this letter from Steinbeck to his editor about books and reading and audiences and life;

~Consider what should (and should not) be “required reading” or think about re-reading;

~Or read about a snob’s opinion of Stephen King’s work;

~Have you read any lit crit lately? Are you wondering what Terry Eagleton is up to?  Or wondered why contemporary lit is “gutless” (as compared to the work of Rabindranath Tagore–do you know Tagore? You should. Interesting dude.)? Anyway, not to fear–postmodernism is dead. Unless it isn’t;

~Finally, to bring it around, you might (re)-consider the effects of literature and its limits:

When we’re practiced in sympathy it is easier for us to notice “what is not seen.” When we have tried, over and over again, to put ourselves into others’ places and to see the world from where they are standing, we’re better people, living in a more civil world. Because we’ve read Alice Adams, we might not go over the top trying to impress people the next time we’re under great social pressure and we might not be so harsh on those who do. Because our children have read, and have had read to them, stories that help them think about the perils of greed, or the importance of kindness, or the dangers of drinking from bottles marked “Drink me,” they will grow up to be more considerate and more careful of themselves and others.

It’s tempting to close with promises about how if we all just read a few more books—better books—support our local arts scene, visit museums, attend concerts, read to our children and make them take piano lessons, our problems will be solved. Surely, a society that’s grounded in civility and sympathy and learned in the humanities would not be plagued with financial irresponsibility and ethical misconduct. Surely it wouldn’t be run by politicians and reported on by journalists who use language that would have shocked Lady Chatterley. Unfortunately people who offer easy answers to complicated questions are usually trying to sell you something.

The humanities can teach us civility and sympathy, but they can’t make us perfect and they can’t fix our problems for us. They can help us be more aware of the “unseen,” but they cannot help us predict unintended consequences. There isn’t a philosophical theory or a novel or a painting or a piece of music in the world that can solve the Middle East or clean up an oil spill or make the economy recover. The best the humanities can do is to remind us that, as Auden put it, “We must love one another or die,” and then show us how to do it.


13 thoughts on “Things You Could (Have) Do(ne) Over Break #3: Literature Edition

    • Thanks, and same to you! Your blog looks like a great place to get lost (Loungers: click on the vlt for a cool lit-related blog). Love it.

      Cool avatar, too.

  1. Love the Solo Piano piece. I’m going to use it when I teach “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” tomorrow. Thanks, PhiloDave…glad your sabbatical has been productive for me so far.

    • Ha! Me, too! Love the pairing, too. Hope you have a big, yellow, smiley face shirt on while you do it.

  2. It hasn’t snowed much, and the time has gotten away from me; however, is not lost but must be put on hold once more.

    You’ve performed a rather flat reading of several of the articles here. Would you agree and, if so, would you hazard a guess as to why the reading is flat?

    “Irony Is Wonderful, Terrific, Fantastic!” aligns with the Wampole article and the Laackman post. Since irony is neither about relativism or narcissism, that is.

    Below comes toward the very end of The Awl article:

    “And then, Wallace was very wrong to suppose that you couldn’t keep all your irony and add something more to it. For our world, so ravishing, so subtle and so terrible, cries out every day to be simultaneously reviled and adored. However complex our reactions may
    be, however carefully they may be fashioned, however “natural” and correct we attempt to make them, they will never be adequate to express the powerfully, insanely contradictory impulses occasioned by the human experience on this earth in the waning days of A.D. 2012, this crazy adventure that we are having together.”

    (Wampole could have written that last clause — if she only lightened up a bit: “this crazy adventure that we are having together.” This is where the two authors are truly similar/in agreement)

    And then there’s something from the comments:

    “I think what Wallace objected to wasn’t irony per se but the shallow cynicism that’s meant to communicate knowing-ness.

    Pick any aspect of human culture: those who know it best are usually very well aware of the limitations of their own abilities, the true scope of the problems, the willingness of other people not to give a damn. For these, irony is an important tool: sometimes it’s a weapon, sometimes is a way create a little distance from the problem to keep from being overwhelmed. Many more uses besides, all fine and good.

    Now enter a person who doesn’t have that same experience but for-damn-sure wants to hang out with the knowing in-crowd. The easiest play is to ape the in-crowd’s sense of world-weary cynicism. This kind of irony serves no purpose beyond it’s use as an “i’m with the cool kids” marker. Worse, since that sort of play-acting is so much easier than earning your cynicism by having the world break your heart a few (hundred) times then the ability to put on the show easily becomes *the* marker for knowing-ness.”

    And then there’s the closing quote/italics from The Freeman.

    • Could have been that I was distracted by the leaking flapper that I needed to fix or the itchiness of my (developing) sa-beard-ical. May have been the bean soup.

      Hard to say since I’m not really sure what a “flat read” is. Could you explain the term? I’d be obliged.

      Also for your patience in regard to my post (upcoming!) on your suggested topic.

  3. “Flat” as in without depth or nuance.

    Examples are the best way to make something abstract more concrete. Skim over most anything posted on the Lounge to see “flat” readings. (I leave you out of that category except on occasion and for this present post. Therefore, by process of elimination, you should recognize “flat” when you see it.)

    Tell me: you’re not honestly suggesting that the Lounge is peopled with skillful, substantive, consciously crafted irony, are you?

    Two things struck me about The Awl article: 1) it really can’t be “funny” except for a very narrow audience, and 2) it is banal. “However complex our reactions may be, however carefully they may be fashioned, however ‘natural’ and correct we attempt to make them, they will never be adequate to express the powerfully, insanely contradictory impulses occasioned by the human experience on this earth in the waning days of A.D. 2012, this crazy adventure that we are having together.” The article never positions itself as somehow oppositional to Wampole (especially as #1 and #2 apply to Wampole as well, but at least Wampole sort of recognizes that) but more as conciliatory, I think.

    Which is why White Noise fits so well here….

    So, back to you: you be the judge: the original question remains.

    BTW: Your post is open and relaxed – without irony – and hearing that you’ve been on sabbatical explains the relaxed part. I hope you rested well. I’m in a rush today so the comment is rushed and I’ll just have to accept that.

    • “The original question remains”

      Sorry (again). Do you mean this one (the first question you asked in this thread): “Would you agree and, if so, would you hazard a guess as to why the reading is flat?” Or this one “You’re not honestly suggesting that the Lounge is peopled with skillful, substantive, consciously crafted irony, are you?”

      I think I answered the former already. And I would think that the answer to the latter is fairly obvious since (to my knowledge) I’ve never suggested anything of the sort. Have I?

      I’d go as far as to say that, speaking for myself, most of what I post is not ironic at all (from an authorial intention standpoint) and more than some of it isn’t meant to be substantive and my stuff is sometimes not even consciously crafted. This post, for example, was, in my mind, just a list of links to things I’ve collected over the last year and a half related to Literature. That’s all. Just a list. Hence the rather neutral prompts: “Consider irony.” I sometimes include quotes in these things to try to provoke a little more interest, but my criteria for those differ by the day and the piece.

      One last point re: the Lounge: I know it is different things to different people (there is nothing but the text itself!) and that is as it should be, but, again, my motivations in starting it were to create a kind of Teacher’s Lounge (as in couches and a coffee maker, like the movies!) where news could be shared, where venting could be vented, where the serendipitous birds of fortune could alight upon our shoulders, where digressions and speculations and interests could be shared, abandoned, recalled, or whatever. The chorus of voices never really materialized (not yet?) and I’m ok with that (it was you who noted a while back that different people have different interests regarding this kind of thing, wasn’t it?); I’ve kept it going because I’ve found it useful for my own teaching and professional tasks (the archives of the Lounge contain a few things that I go back to regularly–another file cabinet, but with a search engine) and because others have told me that they find it useful and because…well…there are other reasons, but whatever. Anyway, now that it’s established and people know that if and when something happens they can come here to talk about it (I think that statement is true) and now that I’m not on Faculty Council and since I have no intention of being a blogger for life, it will certainly evolve over the next year and become whatever it does, more or less, without me.

      Though it may seem it, and I understand why, it is definitely NOT my philosophical or literary project. Publication is beside the point. Nor is it a protest site, nor even an assertion of self expression (though it manifests all of those things). Selfishly, I enjoy writing and have been happy to engage in a lot of “writing to learn” as the theorists might call it (about writing and about topics), but carefully crafted essays or messages are not the point, at least not mine. Don’s Desk has that kind of structure and purpose, I’d venture to say. This site does not. At least not for me. I’ll let others speak for themselves, and certainly you can read it any way that you wish, but, while I appreciate your high expectations of my efforts, it doesn’t seem fair to be disappointed in my/its failure to attain something that I/it am/is not trying to be or do. I love underground newspapers. This is not that. At least not for me.

      Or have I misread your point again?

      • PS: Hope you’ve managed to catch some rest, as well and that your spring classes are off to a fabulous start.

        • Dave – may I call you Dave since we both agree that there is very little “Philo” in this post?

          Dave, when I read your comment I feel like you’re breaking up with me. You know, the sort of break up that begins like this: “It isn’t my fault, it isn’t your fault, it just is what it is….”

          I mean that with good humor and without animosity. You’re leaving. Your bags are packed and you’re ready to go; the taxi is waiting and blowing its horn. Already, I feel that I must tell you that you have been on Faculty Council, and while the Lounge has been many things, it has not been a mere diary, a performance piece, or an autonomous text or software program (like “The SIMMS”).

          It did not maintain itself.

          It’s had its positives and negatives, like anything else, but don’t say it was all for selfish reasons. It meant more than that, didn’t it? Even if in its collective maintenance/execution it ultimately proves to have been dysfunctional?

          I’m not going to automatically recalibrate (lower?) my expectations to accommodate whatever it is the other contributors here on the Lounge have to say, and I feel that I would have to do that should they speak. I am disappointed. You’ve missed the point here just as you’ve missed the referent over there at What I mean to say is the omission is what pulls at the referents, the text, the neutral prompt “consider irony.”

          You know?

          Sometimes we raised money for bail. When you block a highway or demand to see a campus administrator or something, you might get arrested. One morning we went to the courthouse wearing t-shirts that read “Let Tim out before he kicks your *** again!” Tim had been arrested the day before. But we were calling Tim “Slugger” and “Tiger” and we were all pretty giggly. The officers must have had kids of their own because they were all smiles, all around. I never felt any animosity toward the police: we were passionate but entirely reasonable. Why antagonize another person? For kicks? We were concerned about tuition costs, hiring decisions, and freedom of expression. Most people could understand our concerns. I wasn’t in student government but I sat on a few committees and co-hosted a campus talk radio show. Several friends were in student government, and others were simply artists, writers, and musicians. Happy Hour planning sessions were the best. (Happy Hour! When you’re 21 years old! What a gas it was. Back then. When we were 21 years old.) We became the fringe around the core Marxist (Marxist-Humanist, actually) agitators. Differences had developed over message and tactics. The campus protest culture had begun to receive regional media coverage (and, once, a mention in a national magazine). That’s not to brag but to explain why the stakes seemed quite high. The Ronald McDonald plastic hand puppets served a precise ideological critique/purpose (insert explanation of symbolism and theory here) and enabled us to have a (funny) reference point for describing a hegemonic process practiced by the Marxist-Humanists, who turned out to be heavily influenced by a fair number of the faculty and an off-campus group.

          I enjoyed listening to your videotaped interview. May communication lines remain open (and conversations conclude).

          Peace be with you. This first week was pretty crazy so thank you for the positive vibes and for the good things you have done here.

          It is not uncommon for a person to miss and make a point at the same time. All this is still very Jason Bourne but that is not my doing. It sounds like you’re suggesting that I need to either lower or recalibrate my expectations.

          I enjoyed listening to your videotaped interview. May communication lines remain open (and conversations conclude – give me time).

          Peace be with you, of course. This first week was pretty crazy so thanks for the positive vibes.

          • Response Thought #1 (first paragraph): Sure!

            Response Thought #2 (second paragraph): Oh, that’s a great song…

            Response Thought #3 (paragraphs three though eight): I am obviously not communicating what I mean to say. (Sigh). Unless, s/he is just [messing]* with me…

            *Two things: A) I would have used the word I thought, but my mom reads this thing and she doesn’t know I swear; B) that phrase inevitably reminds me of this awesome scene:

            Response Thought #4 (the rest): Same to you, Avramakis. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot I’m missing with respect to our conversations–I feel like there’s a filter between us that adds unseen paragraphs to my posts and subtracts them from yours. Come to think of it, that would be a cool literary device. Anyway, I’ll be around and always interested in your thinkings.

            Hope your second week was more reasonable.

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