On reading and life

There have been a number of posts on litblogs lately that are largely about the relationship of literature and life: here’s a post from Dan Green’s The Reading Experience on reading with a kind of aesthetic distance versus reading in order to learn how to live. And here’s a response from Scott Esposito from Conversational Reading. And here’s a post from Stefanie’s So Many Books on the revolutionary potential of literature. The larger question in all these posts seems to be about what a writer can do and what effect a book can have. Do we read for aesthetic pleasure? Do we read to learn something about life? To change our thoughts or actions? Can literature affect anything outside the world of the text?

I don’t know what I think about the revolutionary power of literature, although Stefanie offers a powerful example of revolutionary possibilities in her post. I suspect that the changes that occur from reading and writing are small but powerful, but that figuring out what causes what is too complicated to sort through. It’s not often that a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes along and appears to make a significant change in people’s ways of thinking and in politics. And even the effects of that book are debatable. But who’s to say how the little changes that reading and writing cause work together and what they add up to?

Dan Green argues against the idea that authors can teach anyone how to live or how to act, and says that artists can tell us about art but cannot necessarily impart wisdom more readily than anyone else might: “I’ve never really understood why we would want to turn to poets or novelists for insights on ‘how to live.’ What has given them some special dispensation to pronounce on such a topic?” To a certain extent, I think that’s true: it strikes me as a mistake to see artists as having an advantage in the pursuit of truth and wisdom. This sets us up for perpetual disappointment at an artist’s flaws and weaknesses. But I tend to be someone who hopes for wisdom from artists anyway; I don’t think they have a “special dispensation” to pronounce on how we should live, but they do have something to tell us about life — the question is figuring out what that is.

Dan talks about some things he thinks we can learn from literature: the contingency and mutability of existence, and a manner in which to question the status quo. I think, also, that art can teach us to pay attention to the world. It’s not so much what an author says about life that I find valuable, but rather the awareness an author brings to existence. I might or I might not emulate a moral ideal I find expressed in a book, but I do hope to emerge from a book seeing things that I hadn’t seen before, paying closer attention to an aspect of life I’d overlooked. I think that learning to see is ultimately a moral lesson, since granting someone or something our attention is a step along the way toward acting responsibly toward that person or thing. An author might not be able to teach me how to live, but if she can teach me how to see, I’ve learned something valuable.

I’d question the distinction between aesthetic appreciation and passionate, engaged reading. Why do these two things have to be opposed? Aesthetic appreciation doesn’t have to imply distanced observation and detachment. As I’ve learned from Elaine Scarry, formal beauty can inspire a powerful emotional response that can lead to thoughts about equality and justice. It’s possible that the more I understand an author’s craft, the more capable I am of passionate response to the work and that response can possibly teach me something about life. Those things won’t necessarily take place in the same moment, but I often read a poem and respond viscerally, and then re-read it and begin to understand the crafted nature of the poem, its artistry, but I’m still responding emotionally and my aesthetic insight can add to my emotional response. I don’t see why aesthetic understanding has to imply gaining a critical distance that is never bridged to bring one back to an emotional closeness to the work.

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