The Irrelevance of Literature


My first year of college I took a course in Arthurian literature. There were fewer than ten of us in the class. After a couple months of smothering our brains in downy volumes of medieval and Gothic-revival romances our professor experienced (or manufactured for our benefit) a crisis of conscience. Why of all things, he asked us, should we waste our time with books like these? When it comes down to it, why read fiction at all? Aren’t books irrelevant? Isn’t the world simply exploding with more serious concerns?

That was 1991. It hadn’t been long since the fall of the Berlin wall, the Soviet Union was just loping off the stage, and Nelson Mandela was free in South Africa. The world as we and our parents had known it was ceasing to be. These were times historians called “momentous” – and had we really shut ourselves indoors to read Chrétien de Troyes and Malory? Our professor, being a wise man, assigned Cervantes for the rest of the course and invited us to feel ourselves on Rocinante’s bony back.

Twenty years later we appear to be in something like momentous times again. Certainly they’re momentous for those engaged in the recent uprisings in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and other places. What with the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, the launch of one – or should I say two – wars of questionable wisdom, the collapse of the world economy, and natural disasters in Haiti and Indonesia that have produced human suffering on a scale to dwarf even Voltaire’s Lisbon earthquake, the past decade has felt uncomfortably momentous.

I confess to occasional pangs of conscience when I switch off the radio or set the virtual newspaper aside with a sigh to pick up a book. I feel a twinge of something like guilt when I decline to inform myself further on the goings-on of the world at large and turn instead to the endless revision of my novel or to writing a brief nothing about a clever passage from Stendhal. I hear the question again: Isn’t the world simply exploding with more serious concerns?

The answer is, Yes… And then again, No.

I don’t want to make a lofty defense of bookwormism. Long-winded and complicated apologies rarely convince anyone that doesn’t already share the apologist’s own sympathies. I know that I’m an obsessive person and in certain respects not very representative of my species, most of whom have more balanced personalities and interests than I do. With shockingly few exceptions, the only things I really care about in this world are books: so of course I’m going to find ways of justifying myself to myself.

Even so, I do want to suggest – meekly, cautiously – that being human means something more than politics or economics or geology or weather. Of course it may, and frequently does, mean these things too. But where human experience overflows the bounds of outward necessities, there art and culture are found. Literature, as the art and culture of words, is an attempt to enjoy and account for and preserve that excess. I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s sometimes life’s excesses that are most precious, most irreplaceable.

Reading a book is a human encounter. Reading well is not an escape but a shared search for answers to questions that are sometimes obvious, sometimes sensed only with gloved hands in a dark room. I like to think that when politics and economics and geology and weather conspire to murder and oppress, picking up a book can be a way of giving a damn. I may be a fool – maybe I’m still bouncing on Rocinante’s back – but I like to believe that reading is a form of solidarity. We read for ourselves, but we read for each other too.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Irrelevance of Literature

  1. True indeed. Life’s excesses make all that work for outward necessities bearable. Bravo.

  2. Charles Curtis

    What are you trying to do? Provoke us with snobbery and absurdity, here?

    What are we without our books? Without our stories? Un-human, inhuman. The gospel, for example, is a story. So are every one of the myths we hold dear, as is the history that makes us. What happened on 9/11? That requires a story to tell. Different people will tell it different ways..

    Apart from our words, which in use always reveal things in our imaginations like a candle does objects and shadow, we are really nothing, merely feral animals. So please stop being a dilettante.

  3. Charles Curtis

    Which is to say finish your novel, already. That charge of dilettantism is meant in these terms: if you aren’t serious about these books, if you really doubt that they mean anything, if it’s just about affectation and pleasure apart from prayer, then you are skirting nihilism, and you lack seriousness. That’s what I meant, apologies for putting it harshly.

    • Ian Wolcott

      I’m not sure that you read me quite the way I intended, Mr. Curtis, or that we’re in any sort of disagreement. I’ll probably admit to being a dilettante, nonetheless. Feel free to drop me an email (newpsalmanazar at gmail dot com) if you’d like.

  4. Thanks, Ian.

    Let Frost weigh in, in this, from an essay on “The Future of Man”:

    “But while I am in the mood to comply, why don’t I go on prophesying to the limit? I am in danger of making all this sound as if science were all. It is not all. But it is much. It comes into our lives as domestic science for our hold on the planet, into our deaths with its deadly weapons, bombs and airplanes, for war, and into our souls as pure science for nothing but glory; in which last respect it may be likened unto pure poetry and mysticism. It is man’s greatest enterprise. It is the charge of the ethereal into the material. It is our substantiation of our meaning. It can’t go too far or deep for me. Still it is not a law unto itself. It comes under the king. There never was a scientist king and there never will be any more than there will be a philosopher king. (The nearest a poet king was Henry VIII who acquired the art in Freshman English under the poet Skelton.) Science is a property. It belongs to us under the king. And the best description of us is the humanities from of old, the book of the worthies and unworthies. The passing science of the moment may contribute its psychological bit to the book like one of the fleeting elements recently added to the chemical list.” (my emphasis)

  5. Bravo, Ian. Even if you say excess where I’d say fullness, and though I did mistake Irrelevance for Irreverence, who cares….I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment. We’re much more than what we make of this world (thank heavens!), and reading is certainly a uniquely human encounter, not some cold, abstract interaction (though I do think I’ve caught my dachshund watching TV!).

  6. Right on. I wrote a little bit on this at my site — you may find it worthwhile: http://jrbenjamin.com/2013/10/11/the-novel-will-never-die/

    “It is immortal because human beings just haven’t found – and perhaps never will discover – a form of storytelling and expression that reveals the workings of a mind and heart the way a well-crafted novel does. It is a wholly pre-technological medium: a succession of monochrome sheets bearing arranged chunks of curly cuneiform. Yet through these lines you connect with another psyche trimmed of its gender, age, epoch, social class, and ethnic identity. The author may’ve been dead a hundred years. Still when you finish the last page you want to keep the conversation going – to write to them, to have coffee with them. ‘Tell me more about…’.”

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