At the beginning of the twenty-ﬁrst century, the National Endowment for the Arts reported a disturbing drop in the number of Americans who read “literary” works. Drawing upon responses to the 2002 Census survey, which had asked more than seventeen thousand adults whether they had read any novels, short stories, poetry, or plays in their leisure time, the NEA noted that 45 percent said they had read some ﬁction, 12 percent had read some poetry, and only 4 percent had read a play. These ﬁndings, published in Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, showed an alarming decline of reading in all age groups across the country, and especially among eighteen-to twenty-four-year-olds. The chairman of the NEA termed the results an indication of a “national crisis,” one that reﬂected “a general collapse in advanced literacy,” and a loss that “impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”1
Among the report’s “10 key ﬁndings” were that under half of the adult American population now reads literature; that although women read more than men (“Only slightly more than one-third of adult American males now read literature”), reading rates were declining for both men and women; that reading among persons at every level of education, including college graduates and postgraduates, had declined over the past twenty years; and that “literary reading strongly correlates other forms of active civic participation,” including volunteer and charity work, cultural involvement with museums and the performing arts, and attendance at sporting events. It was less surprising to ﬁnd that competition with other modes of information, like the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices, had a negative effect upon the number of adults who regularly read.2 Race and ethnicity seemed not to be crucial factors: the rates of decline included whites, African Americans, and Hispanics. “Listening” to literature counted as a kind of reading for this survey, although watching ﬁlms did not: women are more likely to listen to novels or poetry than men, whites more likely to listen to book readings, African Americans most likely to listen to poetry readings. Here the report suggests that “in part” the reason may be “the popularity of dub and slam poetry readings in the U.S.”3
The idea that ﬁction/nonﬁction should be the determining category for “literary/nonliterary” is spelled out in a brief section called “Literature vs. Books,” in which “literature” is explicitly deﬁned as including “popular genres such as mysteries, as well as contemporary and classic literary ﬁction. No distinctions were drawn on the quality of literary works.”4 So a work of “literature” for the purposes of respondents to this survey could be a Harlequin romance or a Sidney Sheldon novel but not Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or Machiavelli’s The Prince, or David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman. I can understand why the survey wanted to make some kind of distinction, and I agree with the democratic decision not to judge works on their putative “quality” (which, in any case, a longer historical view would show is likely to change over time). But the decision to exclude “nonﬁction,” or what an older tradition once dubbed “intellectual prose,” does seem to undercut a little the message that “anyone who loves literature or values the cultural, intellectual, and political importance of active and engaged literacy in American society will respond to this report with grave concern.”5
There was a time when the word literature meant an acquaintance with “letters” or books—the conﬁdent possession, that is, of humane learning and literary culture. “He had probably more than common literature,” wrote Dr. Johnson about the poet John Milton. “His literature was unquestionably great. He read all the languages which are considered either as learned or polite”6 Although Milton wrote great literature, that is not what Johnson’s sentence says. It says that he had literature, which is to say learning, a familiarity with and understanding of words and texts. The nineteenth-century novelist Maria Edgeworth uses literature in a similar way, describing “A woman of considerable information and literature.”7 This sense of the word is now generally obsolete, and would, as is the fate of such obsolescences, undoubtedly be regarded as an error if used in the same way today. For example, if I were to write that J. M. Coetzee “had great literature,” any copy editor would immediately “correct” my phrase to say that Coetzee wrote great literature. The new meaning, the only meaning current in departments and programs of literature, is this:
Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general. Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect. (Oxford English Dictionary 3a.)
It’s worth noting that the ﬁrst instance of this use of the term given in the historical dictionary of the English language is comparatively recent—1812—hundreds of years after Chaucer and Shakespeare (and, of course, thousands of years after the Greek and Latin “classics”). Thus, over the centuries in England, the U.S., and indeed in France, “literature” has changed from a personal attribute or characteristic (something one has) to an institution and a product (something one writes or knows).
Concurrent with this development was the emergence of a personage called a “man of letters,” whose profession was the production of literary work, whether or not he—or, latterly, she—actually earned a living by writing. Here is Sir Walter Scott, one of the most ﬁnancially successful of nineteenth-century novelists: “I determined that literature should be my staff, but not my crutch, and that the proﬁts of my literary labour . . . should not . . . become necessary to my ordinary expenses.”8 For Scott, literature was a product of “labour” and produced “proﬁts” of a pecuniary as well as of a more rareﬁed kind. Despite his disclaimer, he speaks here as a professional man.
At the same time that a speciﬁcally high-cultural sense of literature was coming into currency, what we might call the general case of literature as meaning any body of writing on a given subject (“the scientiﬁc literature”) was developing, again concurrent with the establishment of academic and technical disciplines, each of which was supported and buttressed by specialist publications that came to be called a “literature.” And below that, if we might speak for a moment in terms of cultural hierarchy, was the most general case of all, the equation of literature with all printed matter. It’s instructive to see the sequence of examples offered by the OED for what it still calls a colloquial usage:
1895: “In canvassing, in posters, and in the distribution of what, by a profane perversion of language, is called ‘literature.’ ”
1900: “A more judicious distribution of posters, and what is termed ‘literature.’ ”
1938: “It is some literature from the Travel Bureau.”
1962: “Full details and literature from: Yugoslav National Tourist Ofﬁce.”
1973: “I talked my throat dry, gave away sheaves of persuasive literature.”
Where, at the end of the nineteenth century, this use of the term was deemed profane and perverse, and thus encased in scare quotes, by the late twentieth century (the citation is from a 1973 crime novel by Dick Francis), the word literature no longer needed parsing or protecting and was routinely used to describe ﬂyers, brochures, and other disposable printed stuff.
So the meanings of literature as a term have, perhaps paradoxically, moved both “up” and “down” in recent years. On the one hand, it now seems to denote a particular reading, writing, and publishing practice associated with middle to high culture, with the notion of a literary canon, and with English majors; on the other hand, it has been co-opted—or universalized—so that it means just about anything professional—or research-based—written in words.
In the pages that follow I will attempt not only to argue for but also to invoke and demonstrate the “uses” of reading and of literature, not as an instrument of moral or cultural control, nor yet as an infusion of “pleasure,” but rather as a way of thinking. That is why, in my view, it is high time to take back the term literature. To do so will mean explaining why reading—not skimming for information or for the plot (or for the sexy, titillating “good parts” of a novel or a political exposé)—is really hard to do; and why the very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute. The result of such a radical reorientation of our understanding of what it means to read, and to read literature, and to read in a “literary” way, would be enormous. A better understanding of these questions is the only way to return literature to the center, rather than the periphery, of personal, educational, and professional life.
Literature Then and Now
The word literary does not appear in Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Though based on the substantive literature, which—as we’ve seen—itself originally meant “humane learning,” literary evolved, from the eighteenth century to the present, as something between a compliment and an epithet. Like other, similar concepts and terms, this one changed as its context changed. From the qualitative categories of “literary merit,” “literary reputation,” and “literary education” (all eighteenth-century usages) to the social and economic realms of “literary dinner,” “literary lunch,” “literary circle,” “literary agent,” and “literary executor” (all hallmarks of twentieth-and twenty-ﬁrst-century culture), the uses and fortunes of literary have ﬂuctuated and either evolved or devolved depending upon one’s view. When fewer persons were literate in the most basic sense, that is, able to read, a person of literature or literary training was a prized, if undercompensated, member of society (Oliver Goldsmith: “A man of literary merit is sure of being caressed by the great, though seldom enriched”).9
The nineteenth century made celebrities of some of its writers. Dickens and Wilde toured triumphantly in America, while “Longfellow . . . largely paid the poet’s penalty of being made the lion of all the drawing rooms.”10 (A characteristic modern version of this “lionization” is a handbook called Sleeping with Literary Lions—which, despite its title, is not a hookup service but a guide to U.S. bed-and-breakfasts located near literary landmarks.) Today novelists and poets are read and praised, but by a smaller subsection of the population, since they now compete with ﬁlms, television, the Internet, and other modes of cultural leisure.
“America’s favorite book,” according to a Harris poll that sampled just over 2,500 people, is, unsurprisingly, the Bible. As the proponents of the Butler Act in the famous Scopes trial controversy about evolution learned, not everyone will agree about what the Bible is, but let us put that question aside for a moment. The second favorite for men is The Lord of the Rings; the second favorite for women, Gone with the Wind. Others in the top ten include J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Stephen King’s The Stand, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.11
Even with a tiny sample, this is a dispiriting list, suggesting that after high school (where To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye remain on required reading lists), what used to be known as “canonical literature” is nowhere in sight.
But what is the use of literature? Does it make us happier, more ethical, more articulate? Better citizens, better companions and lovers? Better businesspersons, better doctors and lawyers? More well-rounded individuals? Does it make us more human? Or simply human? Is what is being sought a kind of literary Rolodex, a personal Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of apt literary references (“To be or not to be?” “Only connect”; “Do I dare to eat a peach?”)—phrases that can be trotted out on suitable occasions, at the dinner table, or on the golf course? Such literary taglines or touchstones were once a kind of cultural code of mutual recognition among educated people—but their place has long been taken by references from ﬁ lm, video, TV, rock music, advertising, or other modes of popular culture. Is literature something that everyone should study in the same way that we should study other basic cultural facts about the world we live in, like the history of art or the history of music, studying them all in one fell swoop, in survey courses or general introductions or appreciations?
Why read literature? Why listen to it on audiotapes or at poetry slams or at the theater? Why buy it? And even if you enjoy reading literature, why study it?
What do we mean by literature today, when the term is used by medical and technical professionals to mean “instructional brochures” and by social scientists to mean “a survey of academic research”? “Please send me the latest literature on your new headache drug” or “your most recent software” or “your latest cell phone.” “Enclosed you will ﬁnd a review of the literature on gender discrimination in higher education.” Indeed, the relationship between literature and litter, though not etymologically correct, seems seductively close. (This homology, in fact, occurred to Jacques Lacan, who attributed it to James Joyce.)12 Literature is, all too often, pieces of paper we should consult for expertise but often simply toss in a drawer or in the trash.
To overschematize a little for the sake of argument, let us say that there are two poles in the debate over the “use” or “value” of literature. One pole is utilitarian or instrumental: the idea that literature is good for you because it produces beneﬁcial societal effects: better citizens, for example, or more ethically attuned reasoners. The other pole might be characterized as ecstatic, affective, or mystical: the idea that literature is a pleasurable jolt to the system, a source of powerful feeling that—rather like Judge Potter Stewart’s famous pronouncement about pornography—is unmistakable even if undeﬁnable. (For Stewart’s “I know it when I see it,” we could substitute “I know it when I read it / hear it.”) Emily Dickinson’s “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry” is perhaps the best-known expression of this view. It’s worth quoting the longer passage from which this sentence is excerpted, since it makes the point even more vividly:
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no ﬁre can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?13
The poet A. E. Housman offered a similar somatic test:
Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.”14
For Housman, a noted classical scholar who prized the intellect, poetry was nonetheless “more physical than intellectual.” Other symptoms he reported included “a shiver down the spine,” “a constriction in the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes,” and a sensation in the pit of the stomach that he likened to a phrase from Keats, when “everything . . . goes through me like a spear.” Although these symptoms may sound painful, Housman clearly associates them with a singular kind of pleasure.
So, once again: “feels good” or “is good for you.” Both of these desiderata, we might think, are covered by Horace’s Ars Poetica, with its celebrated advice that poetry should be “dulce et utile,” its aims to delight and to instruct.
A latter-day “Ars Poetica”—one too often dismissed these days—is the popular poem by Archibald MacLeish, with its two famous and quotable pronouncements:
A poem should be equal to:
A poem should not mean
These precepts, so perfectly attuned to close reading and New Critical thinking, also embody a sentiment elegantly summarized by Keats when he wrote, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket.”15 Yet some of the best literature, whether poetry or prose, has been polemical, political, and/or religious (not always in an orthodox way; think of Blake, whose Jerusalem hymn is, ironically, sung in churches all over Britain). Some of the novels of Dickens (the Brontës, Woolf, Conrad, Lawrence, Cervantes, Flaubert) have had palpable designs for political, social, or moral change, as have the great epics, from those by Homer and Virgil to those by Milton and Joyce. This palpable design of epic is the gloriﬁcation of nationalism and empire; Wordsworth’s personal epic, The Prelude, acknowledges the boldness of using such a public genre for chronicling “the growth of a poet’s mind.” But MacLeish’s poem is a poem about poems. Paradoxically, this witty, sensuous verse about what poetry should not do—it should not “mean,” it should not be taken as true—has been read both as a truism and as an explanation of a poem’s proper “meaning.”
Before we leave the questions of whether and how literature can be good for you, we should perhaps note that in the matter of whether works of ﬁction should model—or inculcate—virtue and morality, “good for you” and “bad for you” have the same status. Both are judgmental and moral. These effects may be claimed or discerned by preachers or censors or even by the courts. But they are incidental and accidental by-products of literature, not literary qualities. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James queried the whole category of the morality of the novel: “Will you not deﬁne your terms and explain how (a novel being a picture) a picture can be either moral or immoral? You wish to paint a moral picture or carve a moral statue; will you not tell us how you would set about it? We are discussing the Art of Fiction; questions of art are questions (in the widest sense) of execution; questions of morality are quite another affair . . .
The only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is . . . that it be interesting.”16
There have always been schools of thought about literature and its value, or lack of value, from Plato’s suspicions of poetry to Aristotle’s codiﬁcation of its terms and rules. (The fact that Plato’s chosen form was the dialogue, and Aristotle’s, the category, sorts oddly with their views, since Plato is arguably writing “literature,” just as Aristotle is writing “criticism.”) Horace’s Ars Poetica claimed literature as an art or craft—just what Plato said it was not—and proposed genial, workmanlike procedures for the aspiring poet. Pope and others followed in this tradition, establishing what are sometimes thought of as classical rules, only to be disrupted by the return of admiration for the mad or inspired poet, a taste often associated with Romanticism. There were vatic, inspired, and mad poets before the Romantic period, and classical poets during it; like all pairs of opposites, these are as much alike as they are different. It is the claim of their difference, the insistence on the overthrow of the imprisoning past at the same time that the past is inevitably repeated, that produces the dialectical push and pull of literary history—and often generates some of the best kinds of literary criticism. But it is hard to imagine today the claims for the importance of literature that were still being debated in the middle of the twentieth century. What happened to the primacy of literature, once regarded as the indispensable lingua franca for educated men and women?
Matthew Arnold considered a knowledge of literature to be beneﬁcial not only to the critical thinking and moral health of the individual but also to a program of social advancement. In his work as an inspector of schools, he saw English education as a way of “civilizing the next generation of the lower classes, who, as things are going, will have most of the political power of the country in their hands.”17 It’s important to note from today’s vantage point that Arnold—who was named professor of poetry at Oxford during the period when he also served as a government schools inspector—understood literature to be a key aspect of social improvement, both for the individual and for the general culture. In his view, poetry and criticism were not merely pleasant diversions but, rather, undertakings as serious and valuable as moneymaking or scientiﬁc advancement. The way to secure the future of England—then a Victorian powerhouse of industry and empire—and the future of the laboring classes, was through literary education, a kind of education heretofore regarded as the privilege of the privileged.
Today that sense has pretty much disappeared, replaced by expertise in science and in information technology, on the one hand, and by visual literacy on the other. By visual, what is now meant is moving images (ﬁlms, videos, television, MTV, advertising) as well as paintings and photographs. Quotable quotes are far more likely to be cited from ﬁlms, television, or advertisements than from literature. “Just do it.” “Go ahead, make my day.” “I’ll be back.” Even politicians, who once studiously quoted poets and philosophers, now choose slogans and citations from popular culture. “Mission accomplished.” “Bring ’em on.” So the idea that knowledge of and easy familiarity with literature is either a social accomplishment or a cultural or professional asset must seem quaint. Yet the wordplay involved in coining terms for modern popular culture—especially in visual rebuses like INXS, Ludacris, or Xzibit—is not completely dissimilar to the kind of visual cleverness in, for example, the hieroglyphic poems of George Herbert in the seventeenth century.
After a spurt of enthusiasm among scholars in adjacent ﬁelds like history, anthropology, and philosophy—the so-called linguistic turn of the 1970s and 1980s—literature, literary theory, and literary studies have fallen behind in both academic cachet and intellectual inﬂuence. More to the point—for the key questions here do not concern scholars so much as they do readers and the general public—literature is often undervalued or misunderstood as something that needs to be applied to the experiences of life. Practical concerns with careers and ﬁnancial security have dominated the choices made by ambitious and worried young people who want to make sure education ﬁts them for the lives they think they want to lead. Careers in economics, banking, technology, or law do not include literature, except as an add-on or elective. Nor is the typical English major necessarily the way to encounter literature in an active, inquiring way. Even when literature is read, taught, and studied, it is often interrogated for wisdom or moral lessons. The clumsy formulations I grew up with—what is the moral of the story? what is the hero’s or heroine’s tragic ﬂ aw?—still inﬂuence and ﬂatten the questions people often ask about literary works, as if there were one answer, and a right answer, at that. The genius of literary study comes in asking questions, not in ﬁnding answers.
On the one side, hard science and social science, including technology; on the other side, contemporary visual and musical culture, framed by moving images, ﬁle swapping, and the Internet. Between these two poles, one of which implicitly deﬁnes literature as a potentially useful social enhancement for success in ﬁnancial and practical life, the other one of which leaves literature behind in favor of livelier, more supposedly “interactive” cultural forms, literature has been devalued—sometimes for reasons that seem, on the surface, benevolent, and sometimes by those who profess to love it best.
In his essay collection Promises, Promises, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips refers with a sense of nostalgia to “what was once called Literature.”
Coming, as they say, from what was then called Literature as a student in the early 1970s, to psychoanalysis in the late 1970s, has made me wonder what I thought psychoanalysis could do for me—or what I wanted psychoanalysis to do for me—that Literature could not. And, of course, what I might have been using Literature for that made psychoanalysis the next best thing—or rather, the other best thing.18
Anyone who loves what was once called Literature can teach it, write it, and of course, read it. But people who love psychoanalysis can teach it, write it, read it, and practise it. Because there is a real sense—a pragmatic sense—in which we can practise what Freud writes, we can wonder, by the same token, what it would be to practise Henry James or Shakespeare, and what the effect on our reading is when we are finding out how to do something.19
It wouldn’t be unjust to call this set of constraints and wishes a kind of love letter, one that—from the author of a book on monogamy—represents a desire for both surprise and fulfillment. In seeking literature, Phillips found psychoanalysis. But having found psychoanalysis, he still fantasizes about his first love, literature. Phillips wants literature to have something like a use, what he calls a practice. But what if we were to understand literature as its own practice?
Central to this book is the question of how we can understand the importance of “what was once called Literature,” and how we can distinguish it from other distinct, though valuable, human enterprises like morality, politics, and aesthetics. My purpose and my goal are to explain the specificity of literature and literary reading.