Assumptions in the literary world that have been considered normative for generations are under attack. Helen Vendler, the nation's foremost poetry critic, even finds the need to defend Shakespeare's sonnets. Good literature from prior centuries is being tossed over in favor of modern writing in some surprising quarters. Many of us find this trend alarming, and for good reason.
At one time it was thought that literature should have an ennobling and refining effect on the soul. We understood that people are full of passionate energy, which can be directed in either destructive or constructive avenues. We recognized that classical art, music, and literature have power. The arts were valued for their ability to uplift the soul, to impart a sense of truth, and to teach us that life has purpose and is worth living.
My own love affair with literature began with a matchmaker named Eleanor Leonard, the children's librarian in my home town. One day I walked into the library with a Nancy Drew mystery. Mrs. Leonard greeted me.
"What's that book you have under your arm?"
"It's a Nancy Drew mystery."
"Why, I'm surprised at you, Sarah. There are so many better books you could read."
"But I like Nancy Drew. All my friends read her."
Mrs. Leonard paused, looking at me intently. "The trouble with Nancy Drew is that it isn't literature; it doesn't have the depth or richness of a classic. Come here, let me show you."
Mrs. Leonard drew me over to the fiction shelves for my age group and began to read passages from her favorites. Some were from masters such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling and Johanna Spyri. Other authors, such as C. S. Lewis, Madeline L'Engle and Rumer Godden, were more recent, including several Caldecott or Newbery Award winners.
Despite the variety in subject matter, these books possessed elements in common. The language was rich, characters had depth, symbolism was common, and the themes were uplifting and ennobling. After reading passages from these books, we looked at a passage from Nancy Drew. It seemed empty and even a little silly in comparison.
When she was finished, Mrs. Leonard offered me a challenge. "I tell you what, why don't you read the classics first, then when you've finished, go on to the others?"
I accepted that challenge. Thirty-six years later, I am still reaping the benefits of Mrs. Leonard's wisdom. I haven't "finished" the classics, and won't, of course, before I die. What Eleanor Leonard cultivated in me was a taste for something better, which has stimulated my thought, uplifted my spirit, and satisfied my soul throughout a lifetime of reading. I count her as one of the most important influences in my life.
That such literature should be devalued is painful and disturbing. The California public schools have decided that teachers need only present modern writing to its students. A 1997 Associated Press article noted that many U.S. colleges have dropped the requirement for literature majors to study Shakespeare, Milton, or Dante. Even more alarming are the reports of librarians who are throwing away books by the hundreds because of their "politically incorrect" content. "There's plenty of good modern writing available, that's more relevant and caters to our modern sensibilities," seems to be the reasoning.
This is an insufferable loss. Yes, there's much good modern writing available, but why abandon the old in order to embrace the new? We need both; we especially need the voice and experience of other centuries, lest we become insular and myopic. As long ago as 1854, Matthew Arnold wrote: "Sanity—that is the great virtue of the ancient literature; the want of that is the great defect of the modern, in spite of its variety and power." As to the question of relevance, as Helen Vendler aptly observes, "Art creates its own relevance."
Part of the difficulty is that many of today's students chafe at the difficult vocabulary, the long sentences and paragraphs, and the complex language of other centuries. Because they are used to being passively entertained, people rarely want to read anything over 200 pages. English teachers and librarians seem to feel that things are so desperate, it's better to get students reading anything, rather than nothing. So they cater to this intellectual sloth, thus contributing to the dilemma.
Two of the results to this approach are "outcome-based education" and libraries of paperbacks that Mrs. Leonard would have thrown out by the box full. Thus our young people's intellectual growth is stunted, while the intellectual vigor of our nation at large continues to spiral downward. Has any other generation been more intellectually indulged and pampered?There is yet another dimension to this issue. Most of us are horrified at the increase of violence perpetrated by youth. We endlessly discuss the effects of television, videos, music, and movies. What about their reading material? Are they reading? If so, what are they reading?I teach evening parenting classes in a public grade school. Recently I saw a book on display in the school library that was based on the television show, "The Addams Family." The main character of the book was "Thing," the disembodied hand. There was no plot, theme, or character development to speak of. The sole point of the book was to advertise the television show. The library also had an entire shelf of "Goosebumps" books, similarly devoid of meaning and value. In another classroom, an English class was studying a shallow book about an out-of-control "space alien child" who terrorizes friends and family. What are such books doing in our public schools and libraries? It's one thing for publishers to print this sort of thing, and another matter entirely for libraries and schools to carry and teach them. Instead of promoting the best that our civilization has to offer (as schools and libraries used to do), our children are being encased in pop culture everywhere they turn. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle, and is a disservice to our young people.
Children are more impressionable than adults. What they read, see, and hear goes inside and becomes part of their inner world. They don't have the intellectual filters that adults do. When my daughter was little, we talked about good literature, and how much popular writing is mind pollution (an idea that caught her imagination and had the desired effect). If our children are reading about monsters and aliens, these are the images they are internalizing. Is it any wonder that some of them begin to act like monsters and aliens?Timeless, beautiful literature has the opposite effect. When we read literature peopled with characters who struggle with life's difficulties and overcome themselves and their circumstances, this presents us with a powerful blueprint, and most importantly, with hope. We feel that we too can overcome our own inner difficulties, struggle with our life circumstances, and thus find meaning and fulfillment. Such literature lifts us up to what is good and hopeful in our common human heritage. Therein we find beauty, which the human heart ever seeks. As Dostoevsky said, "Beauty will save the world."
For these reasons, Christians who reject literature that is not overtly "Christian" do themselves a great disservice. Most literature of the past is written from a Christian world view and is highly moral. Such works can be invaluable in helping us deepen our understanding of life; they can help us develop a moral and Christian approach to the trials that beset us. Literature, like classical music, also has the ability to refine the soul, making it more receptive to Divine impressions.
Granted, literature, like classical music or opera, can be hard to understand at first. It's an acquired taste, yet one well worth cultivating. For the sake of our children's minds, hearts, and souls, we need to take the time to help them acquire this taste. The benefits are well worth whatever effort we might make. Good writing is a great joy that can bring untold riches to the human soul.
When I first saw the Mediterranean Sea as an adult, it was a strangely moving moment for me. Why? The wave patterns and shoreline formation are about the same as the Atlantic Ocean I visited frequently as a child. The answer is that for me, it was portentous as Ulysses' "wine-dark sea." It held fascination as the site of the Punic Wars and the arena of Phoenician sailing ships. It was precious as the site of Saint Paul's missionary voyages. My knowledge of Scripture and literature greatly enhanced my trip. I enjoyed it a thousandfold more than I would have otherwise.
Are students turning away from literature and the classics because we are, in fact, raising a generation of intellectual Dufflepuds? Or is it simply because much of what they're reading is one-dimensional and tasteless? We'll never know unless we take the time and effort to inspire them to take the time and effort. We'll never know unless we raise them from pop culture, to that which ennobles and endures.
Sarah Cowie is a writer living in Eugene, Oregon. Her book More Spirited Than Lions: An Orthodox Response to Feminism, will be published by Regina Press later this year.
Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.comBooks & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Spring in Purgatory: Dante, Botticelli, C. S. Lewis, and a Lost Masterpiece | The most popular illustration of Dante's "Divine Comedy" has remained effectively "lost" for 500 years—although millions have seen it and admired it. By Kathryn Lindskoog (Feb. 7, 2000)
Playwright, Dissident, Czech President … Who Is This Man? | A new biography of Václav Havel fills in important blanks, but omits his theology. By Jim Sire (Jan. 31, 2000)
An Open Letter to the U. S. Black Religious, Intellectual, and Political Leadership Regarding AIDS and the Sexual Holocaust in Africa (Jan. 24, 2000)
Tony Blair's Devolution Revolution | Paving the way for peace in the United Kingdom. By Michael LeRoy (Jan. 17, 2000)
Loving the Alien, in Sickness and in Health | Too many recipients of health care today feel neither tolerated nor entitled, let alone loved. By Diane Komp (Jan. 10, 2000)
The New York Review of Books recently published a similar article. "The Decline and Fall of Literature," by Andrew Delbanco, appeared in the magazine's November 4, 1999 issue.
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