Rethinking the literary
It was my first summer in New York, and I had made a resolution, among others, to spend some time reading every single day. Conveniently, I had a chunky collection of classic short stories that I had picked up from the airport (as one does). It became my train book, my bedside book, and my afternoon-in-the-park book. I made a point of recording how much time I had spent reading it every day in my journal.
Eventually I managed to make my way through the entire thing, from start to finish. But on reflection, I found myself questioning: what was the point? In my head, the objective of my ritualistic reading had been to enrich and inspire myself. But the stories, while amusing or touching, didn't seem to do that for me. I realized that my plan was somewhat naive: how was reading any random text, particularly in forced and measured doses where it was treated like an exercise plan, supposed to generate real insights and intellectual growth?
This was the beginning of a more intentional, but also more narrow-minded, reading practice. In the years that followed, I neglected literature and began to seek out dry, dense, serious prose. The shift was driven partly by my studies in philosophy, and partly by the attitude that they engendered: I was angered by a tendency in academic writing towards using evocative turns of phrase and insular terminology; it felt like the instruments of style were being used in these texts as a crutch to obscure the lack of clarity in an author’s insights.
Looking back, I think I had identified an authentic problem in the language of art and academia1. But my frustration grew into a broad and unfair suspicion of literature, poetry, and any kind of stylized writing. In truth, it was a suspicion born of the fact that I didn’t really understand what this type of writing was for, any more than I had when I made my way through the book of short stories. Implicitly, I think I saw these genres as just doing bad philosophy, in the way they gesture towards deeper meanings without ever explaining themselves, hinting at truths which cannot be spoken plainly.2. As Iris Murdoch so finely puts it, I took issue with how they “mystify” rather than “clarify”.
These days my train commute is long and routine enough that I can settle comfortably into a state of concentration; as a result, it’s become my practice to carry a book on me, and read on the way to or from the 8th avenue L stop. My choices of text vary: sometimes I undertake to read this or that philosophy volume from my shelf, but since they’re very hard to get into on a train, lately I've been opting to take novels with me instead.
The novels are entertaining of course, and sometimes a salve after stressful days at the office. But every now and then I find a passage that takes me a bit further: following the voice of the narrator, I am compelled to notice some aspect of my own emotions or sensations which I had never specifically marked, or feel myself in the position of someone that I had never previously identified with.
Through these findings, I am coming to see how literature and poetry can call attention to — or almost summon — experiences, without necessarily seeking or pretending to clarify them. I don’t know what the precise intellectual value of this is, though it may well exist. But more fundamentally, I want to challenge my prior assumption that all reading falls into the buckets of either entertainment or intellectual enrichment. Reading literature has made me feel more in touch with my life, my world, and my relationships, and that is a virtue that I want to chase, even if it does not really help me navigate them better.