Thursday, August 1, 2013

Literature is bad for you

With attacks on the humanities -- and on my field of English in particular -- coming from every direction, I feel that it's time to consider some new and perhaps radical strategies to promote the reading of literature in these attention-span dwindling days. What was the last straw? Was it when a student in one of my classes condemned Edgar Allan Poe's "A Descent into the Maelstrom" as "too detailed"? Was it when a student in the midst of a discussion of Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House asked whether its author was mentally ill? Or perhaps it was the day that someone asked whether, since they'd already read Hamlet in eleventh grade, they'd have to read it "all over again" in my class?

We who teach literature labor under a false premise: that if a teacher or college professor tells young people that a particular book or author is "good" for them, that they'll a) take our word for it; and b) read it. But what if our saying that it's "good" is precisely the problem? After all, none of the propaganda about the virtues of spinach, whole wheat bread, or tofu has made any of those foods more popular with teenagers. And what sort of honor is it, anyway, to have one's work declared to be a "classic"? I think with sorrow on the moment when Groucho Marx, who was having dinner with the poet T.S. Eliot, boasted that his daughter was studying "The Waste Land" at Beverly High. "I'm sorry to hear that," the great poet had replied, "I have no wish to become compulsory reading."

And herein lies the dark essence of my plan: instead of saying that reading literature is good for you, I think we should start telling people it's bad for them. After all, it has some serious side-effects: for a time, at least, the reader believes in, and worries about, the travails of completely non-existent people. Their hearts beat faster, they break out in a sweat, they turn the pages feverishly -- all in the quest to discover the fate of a woman or a man who has never lived. No less a light than St. Augustine condemned Virgil's ├ćneid for this reason: why should he be made to weep for Dido, a woman who was little more than a chimera created by a whiff of words, when his own immortal soul, not yet confessed unto Christ, was in so much greater and more profound peril?

The Irish novelist Flann O'Brien put it succinctly: a novel, like a drug, is self-administered in private, and its key effect is to convince the user of the reality of nonexistent beings. So why not regulate, or better yet, ban it, as we do other hallucinogenic drugs? Asking kids to read novels over their summer vacations is little better than popping LSD in their lunch-bags: the results will be much the same. Warning labels, at least, seem to be in order. Searches of backpacks should be conducted at every school, and every one of these illusionary text-drugs confiscated. Libraries? Let them, like those of Dickens's Professor Gradgrind, contain nothing but facts. A book which consists of facts, after all, does not deceive its readers into believing in the reality of imaginary people or places. Teaching literature? Eliminated. Let those who still wish to read novels be obliged to purchase them illegally, on street-corners, and hide them within paper bags until they reach the safety of their homes. And as for e-books, well -- aren't e-cigarettes, as much as the older, match-lit variety, little more than drug delivery vehicles? Fortunately, can easily delete all fiction from the Kindle readers of offenders, refunding the cost so that users can more wisely spend their funds on non-fiction and works of reference.

And then, finally, I think you'd get the next generation interested in reading again. The thrill of the forbidden, the discovery of books as contraband, and the risk of arrest would make books cool. People would brag about scoring a gram of Poe down on the corner, or dropping a little Shakespeare in some dark alley. Bootleg editions of Woolf and Cather would be printed with plain brown covers, and once more, you'd have to smuggle copies of Joyce's Ulysses across the border inside boxes labelled "sanitary towels." Underground book groups would form, and meet in secret, shifting locations, the address sent out via encrypted e-mails. Oh, sure, there'd be some places -- Amsterdam, I suppose -- that would tolerate fiction, setting up "reader parks" where you could openly turn the pages of Kerouac or Kesey. But we'd all know that would never work; fiction is just a gateway drug, and the only solution is one of zero tolerance. For, as the town manager in Terry Gilliam's Munchausen notes, we can't have people escaping at a time like this.