Thursday, September 29, 2011

We Don't Read and Write Because It's Cute

I love getting my students' opinions on assigned readings because it gives me a chance to gauge how well they are or aren't absorbing the material and style of a given piece. At the same time, I try to remind myself that if I don't like every single thing I read, I can't expect my students to like every single thing I assign, either. As a general rule, though, I find it hard not to take it personally when students say that a certain piece was boring. Essentially, that translates to "Even though I didn't care enough to put much effort into deciphering this, I've concluded that you wasted my time by assigning it."

Then again, I remember years ago when I was a student, browsing through assigned books or essays and honestly thinking the same thing from time to time. So does the fault belong to the literature or the reader?

Well, first, we have to bear in mind that everybody has their own style, their own aesthetic. Put another way, if we can't all agree on something as trivial as the best kind of pizza (extra pepperoni from Pizza Hut, or if you happen to be in Iowa City, Falbo's double-decker stuffed crust), how are we going to agree on literature, movies, and music?

Let's cut to the chase: it's easy to conclude that we're supposed to read assigned material because our instructors have some nebulous, geeky, oddball enjoyment of it coupled with a maniacally cackling desire to bore the living hell out of us. Easy, but wrong. Even if we don't like everything we read--and honestly, I probably only like about 1/3 of what I read--the reason we do it isn't just for kicks. Sure, good writing should be entertaining, but there's an unspoken truth behind all humanities courses, and from time to time, we need to be reminded of it.

The real reason people write, the real reason why people like me ask you to read: you're mortal. Everyone you love, believe it or not, may slip away from you at any given time. From car crashes to hangnails, bad things happen. Good things are coming, too, but so are plenty of awful things that we simply can't avoid forever. The choice, then, is to stick our heads in the sand and depend on ignorance to save us (which it never does) or keep our eyes wide open and weather the storm.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that in 100% of the cases throughout human history, literally going back for tens of thousands of years, the people who aren't prepared, who don't have some minimal level of maturity and self-reflection, who aren't at least slightly able to step out of their own skin and empathize with others, even those they disagree with... well, those are the people who have the worst responses when bad things happen.

That doesn't mean that you're only a worthwhile adult if you have a healthy knowledge of the lessons presented in Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" about the real life-and-death need for individuality and self-expression, or the paranoia, bigotry, and immaturity associated with the attempts to ban works like "Cather in the Rye" and "Howl" just because they make weak-minded people uncomfortable. No, I'm quite sure that good, mature people existed for thousands of years before Walt Whitman wrote of the evils of slavery or Siegfried Sassoon, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other warrior-poets revealed that contrary to romantic opinions, wars actually kinda suck.

BUT if we can internalize the lessons given to us by tough-as-nails geniuses throughout the ages, from Christ and the Buddha to modern writers, musicians, and artists, we'll not just be better equipped to deal with a Tuesday morning fender-bender or the loudmouth bigot falling off his barstool; we're also less likely to lose our minds when a buildings blow up or a spouse's biopsy test comes back as malignant. The real point of literature, art, music, philosophy, etc., isn't to show off how goddamn clever we are. It's to keep us from stuffing people we don't like into cattle cars. It's to arm us against the unknown. It's to simultaneously deepen our emotions while thickening our skin. And here's the bonus: it also makes us far, far more capable of living rich, worthwhile lives.

You can't put a price on that. But you can buy it for a few hundred bucks and a few hours of your time each week.

I'd like to think that I still managed to learn at least some of the lessons in the books I've failed to read over the years; on the other hand, it probably took me longer. Think of literature as a key, if you like, or a doorway. Every single time you actually use it--whether it's an essay by Howard Zinn talking about the true history of the U.S., or a Marie Howe poem elucidating the seemingly trivial but quietly revelatory nature of our daily lives--you're getting stronger. You're getter harder to manipulate, less likely to lose your shit when you don't get a promotion or the water heater breaks down.

And I guess that's why it bothers me when students say that they find something boring, because even though I respect their honesty and they're perfectly within their rights to feel that way (hell, sometimes, I agree with them!), it also means that they haven't internalized a given lesson and unless they learn it elsewhere, they're at slightly greater risk than they might otherwise be. And I worry.

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