John Pistelli

writer

Back to School: Literature Springs Eternal

springbooks

Most of my reading matter for the spring semester is above. (You can find the syllabi here.) As with ordering from a new and affordable menu, the digestive organ may be too small for the appetite: in other words, perhaps too many books! Extracurricularly, I am currently reading a long, dense book, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953). In the midst of it, Bellow’s hero, acquainting himself with literature, history, philosophy, and science, dispenses with forced reading, such as school might require:

I never blamed myself for throwing aside such things as didn’t let themselves be read with fervor, for they left nothing with me anyhow…

You’ll never get too far into an immense, plotless, sometimes even aimless, willfully stylized, and at times utterly wearying (also at times breathtaking) picaresque novel like Augie March with that attitude! Yet the passage is complex: “let themselves be read with fervor.” The implied metaphor (a disturbingly timely one) is sexual consent. The metaphor is not so inapt: there is no such thing as forced reading, not really; you can always put any book down, even one on the syllabus, as every student (but don’t tell the teacher!) has done from time to time. In reading as in any type of relation, once the relation is consented to (“let”) by the other, the fervor on your side is up to you. If you decide to keep reading, you (we, I mean) have to bring something to the books if the books will give anything to us, as one tutelary spirit of the Bellovian enthusiasm advises in his manifesto for American scholarship (the following, with reason, appears as the epigraph to my early American literature syllabus):

There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

But because a syllabus is a list of books you are required (at least notionally) to read, it fills you with the overmastering desire to read something, anything else. Please let me, then, make my semiannual appeal: if you want to go AWOL from the prescribed texts, to play literary hooky with a novel intended, over and above its other intentions, to be absorbing, to give pleasure, I recommend what else but my very own Portraits and Ashes.

A relevant excerpt: one of my protagonists, an unemployed architect in a broken marriage wandering the public library during his empty days, decides (just before an erotic assignation for which he will be paid) to do some serious reading, a mission I both strongly believe in and lightly mock:

Self-improvement, then. When he wanted to read something serious, Mark mostly read non-fiction, books about architecture, history, science, or philosophy, books that would make him more intelligent and knowledgeable, while he only perused fiction very occasionally, without taking it at all seriously, for the sake of entertainment or consolation. He had once heard an old professor on TV holding forth to the effect that an acquaintance with the classics of literature fortified the mind and disciplined the passions by subjecting them to the scrutiny of controlled intelligence, as manifested by all the historical varieties of rhetorical eloquence mastered by the great authors. The graybeard had gone on to observe that nothing in popular culture, still less in so-called new media, could match this passion-regulating function of the best that had been thought and said. While this old man, with his wisps of white hair at the sides of his head and his wrinkled chambray shirt, which looked as if years’ worth of pipe smoke must have been caught in its folds, had obviously gone on TV to promote some conservative agenda, Mark, a pragmatic liberal who thought it worse than useless, even cruelly obtuse, to scorn the needs of one’s own time and to protest or try to resist historical change, and who could moreover only imagine the professor emeritus’s scornful reaction to [his wife] Melissa’s web series with its zippy sarcasm and outbursts of profanity and proliferating pop-culture references, nevertheless saw the benefits in his present circumstance of both acquainting himself with a variety of passions and learning how they might be controlled.

He went in search of the classics. In the literature section on the third floor, he found many guides to them, some advertised for resentful truants and morons, others for solemn aspirants to high culture. He noticed that the former usually had some kind of school motif on the cover, the title made to look as if it were written in chalk, for example, while the latter tended to have reproductions of Michelangelo or Vermeer or Waterhouse on the front, some rippling-muscled Biblical hero or attractively pensive and stolid Dutch bourgeoise or perishingly sad-eyed English waif, all suggesting what literature might do for your sensibility if only you’d follow the guidance of the books’ authors.

Happy reading to all!

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