The Magazine

Paradox of the Book

The chaos of the Internet makes reading easier.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By THOMAS L. JEFFERS
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Those code-crackers insisted that literature qua literature does not illustrate ideologies, historical events, or even moral ideas—though of course they are all in play. A literary work is, like a living person, a complicated and ambivalent organism: We have to live with it awhile if we hope to comprehend it properly. The cultural studies squad certainly doesn’t sweat the complications and scarcely bothers with the particular words. It just asks students to grasp the salient points, usually regarding who, in a given setting, is oppressing whom.

Of course, it’s smart to know who’s oppressing whom: It enables us to survive and, possibly, to help others do the same. But as Harold Bloom says, the best books offer something prior: self-knowledge. By discovering what authors think, feel, and care for, we find out who they are. By entering into dialogue with their books—annotating in the margins when we agree or disagree or when we aren’t sure—we define who we are.

So far, you might say, so school-master-ish. There’s more than a trace of the self-help book in Slow Reading, which comes complete with 14 rules—from “Be Patient” to “Identify Signposts” to “Find Another Book”—that promise to fix what’s broken in our mental and emotional life. But this is entirely forgivable, given the impoverishment that, without enough slow reading, so many of us suffer. And as slow readers of great books, we take away not just trivia for Jeopardy! It’s what Elizabeth Bowen said of the books she read as a child, which provided a feeling for “incalculable” characters: “It appeared that nobody who mattered was capable of being explained. Thus was inculcated a feeling for the dark horse.” 

Literature presents not only characters but ideas that are “dark” (i.e., richly ambiguous), such that interpretation can be edifyingly difficult. Mikics shows how key words in the works of philosophical writers such as Machiavelli (virtù and fortuna) and Edmund Burke (“rational liberty”) are contested and qualified in ways that, as their meanings unfold, require the reader to do a lot of the work: apprehending what’s on one page, and connecting it with similar and dissimilar statements on other pages. 

There’s nothing flagrantly amiss in Mikics’s formulations of the pagan, Christian, Romantic, or modernist themes explored in works by Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Blake, Yeats, Chekhov, Philip Roth, and others. But the more I reread his two-to-four-page summations, the more I felt that, like many of us, he’s seduced by a professorial fondness for verbal solutions—nuggets of interpretive wisdom that can seem all right as we stand above a great poem, play, or novel, but that evanesce as we descend to details. 

Mikics offers sound synopses of a number of predictable classic works as well as, happily, some unexpected ones—Lawrence’s “Fragment of Stained Glass” and Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, for instance. His hope is that, stimulated by his aperçus, we will find these works for ourselves and, after careful study, will return to Slow Reading to review and debate his commentary.

Good luck with that. A better strategy is followed by Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer (2006). She reprints long extracts from fiction that illustrate most of Mikics’s common-sense principles (“Identify the Voice,” “Notice Beginnings and Endings”) and that get us far enough into the works to make us feel we’re truly reading them. The motivation to finish the job is strong. But the best strategy, surely, was pursued by classic textbooks, such as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry or Trilling’s The Experience of Literature, which present full texts and thorough—often up to half-a-dozen-page—critiques, the utility of which, shown time and again in midcentury classrooms, was to enable students to proceed to “do things with texts” quite on their own, thanks.

This is precisely what we should want. The groves of academe are now a brownfield, and it will take a generation, maybe more, for them to grow green again. It’s happened before. In the 1930s, literature departments, following the lead of intellectuals at the New Republic, Partisan Review, and elsewhere who were looking for total solutions to massive political and economic problems, went all-in for Marxism. It took the cogent counter-revolutionary exertions of those aforementioned close readers, joined by the moral-imagination luminaries at Columbia and Cambridge, to restore a measure of sanity—not to say intellectual honesty.