Mailbox: On Reading at Fifty

image: embraced by wordsFrom the mailbox, from an old student now in college. The short version seems to be, “What’s the point of studying literature in the 21st century? What’s the point, ever?” I remember having the same questions at times when college made literature seem pointless. So it’s interesting to answer now, as a reader long out of college who is nearing 50. I’m sure the student would like to hear your answers too.

She writes:

I have a burning question that I think many of your lit students are also pondering, and something you could ask your colleagues and see what they say. Every lit class I’ve taken so far has left me with this: What is literature supposed to do? Chronicle social history  through personal accounts? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Sure, we can analyze bits of a novel, poem, play, etc. but what of it? I was researching the reasons why God favored Jacob over Esau when it dawned on me that scholars have made it a life’s work trying to find an answer that doesn’t seem to exist. And when they do propose an explanation, it seems only worthwhile at that moment. A life’s work rooted in a single moment’s satisfaction.

You emphasized learning in class, but learning what? About the human condition that doesn’t seem to or ever will change? All those authors and books that will never make it to the “must-read” pile – what happens to them?  Why do they not transcend time? Is it because they reiterate themes that someone has done before? Are their efforts wasted? Should their time been better spent elsewhere?

If you were to go back in time, would you have spent your time studying technology instead of literature? As I’m sure you’re well aware, computers seem to be synonymous with progress. How does literature improve us as a society? Why do we need it? What is it supposed to do? For a generation that doesn’t bother reading newly published books (or anything besides what’s on the front page of yahoo or msn), what is literature’s part in today’s society? You’re a teacher, why do you teach lit? What do you want your students to take out of and do with it? It’s a lot of questions I know, but I couldn’t find a way to articulate all of them in a single sentence.


The answer that wants to come out of my mouth is this: it’s about a love that’s deeper and richer than most other loves. That’s what reading means to me.

I read once that John Adams was fond of saying, “With a poet in your pocket, you’re never lonely.”

I’d up it by saying you’re with the best company humanity has to offer.

The brilliant (as in shiny) dead are more alive to me than the mediocre (as in dull) living. I’m so glad I spent that year or two reading every word, public and private, that Nietzsche wrote (chronologically, too, while reading a biography of him as I went through his works), and Keats, and Wilde, and others, and now, Confucius. It is simply capital-L Love.

But it takes climbing for a few years in order to be able to enjoy those vistas. The climb is worth it, if you’ve ever experienced a reader’s high. If you (or anyone) hasn’t, then maybe they’re not cut out for that sort of life. Literature is certainly not for everybody, any more than physics is. It takes a certain temperament and intelligence.

I’m one of the most alone people in the world, but never lonely. I love my solitude — mostly because I use it to get high on language, ideas, beauty. Theirs, mine. In Paradise Lost, Milton has Adam ask the angel Raphael if there is sex in heaven. Raphael answers yes, but without bodies. It’s souls uniting instead. That, to me, is what the union of reader and writer — when well-matched — brings.

So I don’t regret those seemingly pointless literature classes at all, now. In retrospect, they weren’t teaching me literature as much as equipping me with the ability to fall in love, over and over, for the rest of my life.

[P.S. I stopped teaching literature to high school students. I teach history here in Singapore. Teens are too young to drink the finest literature. It requires too much adulthood — heartbreaks, triumphs and failures, betrayals and devotions, losses of innocence and experiences of the sublime. That stuff happens only when we escape our parents, finish growing our frontal lobe, and, if lucky, leave the beaten path for some roads less traveled.]

Image: “ Embraced by Words” by Robbert van der Steeg

2 thoughts on “Mailbox: On Reading at Fifty”

  1. i could not agree more. although i have come to poetry and fine literature late (I’m 63), i have found a means to ecstasy without using drugs. the climb to understand a great writer or a great work like any other kind of climb is tiring. but the climb, the voyage of imagination and patient, or rather attentive listening makes you stronger. how does it do this? it makes you closer to other people, more full of empathy, more attentitive to what they think and what they need. if you ever want to love on the deepest levels, and this is its own reward, you will need this deep compassion. one of the greatest gifts we have as americana is the english language. because it has been nourished from so many sources, soils, greek, latin, german etc there are finer shades of meaning available to us as speakers and readers than are available to non-english speaking or reading people. what a shame not to take advantage of this advantage. keep the faith.

    1. A,

      I so admire your word choice: “ecstasy” via “attentive listening.”

      One of the paradoxes in my life is that the love from/of reading makes real-life love possibly more difficult, unless with others who share that love. So reading separates me from people at the same time, as you say, it sharpens my ability to empathize with them.

      And while I’m not about to diss the English language — one of the few things about Western culture I don’t find easy to criticize — I will say that my current years-long love (through reading) of China is teaching me how rich that language is, too, in ways we Westerners usually don’t understand. But that’s for another time. I’m too tired to attempt it now.

      “Ecstatic attentiveness.” I so like that. I’m going to have to remember to connect it to a skill I preach to my students called The Art of Noticing. I think they’re related….

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