Why I don’t read literature

njoy! 4get wastin tym @ lit class LOL!

I was looking to widen my horizons through reading literature recently and look what I found outside the book!

An animated world map
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A stretched world that’s already shrunk so small that I don’t know where to look to expand my mind anymore.

I saw people in Washington Square Park yesterday eating South Indian dosas wrapped like a Mexican burrito from a street vendor  and I read in the news that they got 3G on top of mount Everest at last.

And I’m running into people I know at the airport waving at me as I’m entering the tarmac half-way around the globe entering other tarmacs themselves boarding flights departing half-way around the globe holding babies and dogs that have more identification papers with them than a professor with a Ph.D.

I’m really confused now when I say half-way around the globe because I don’t really know what the starting point is from where my half of the globe begins.

I know this is all for the best for me because I read this week on the internet that a scientist has said that when you finally meet the aliens don’t tell them your location because they may not be so benign after all.

I think my location, at least in my head, is uncertain enough so ’em aliens are bound to be thoroughly confused.

I’m thinking when I meet the aliens I’ll hand them a copy of my old Oxford Book of English Verse and see what they think. We don’t need those literary tomes here anymore on earth except for a few short quotes within 140 characters.

Anyway, humans are in a post-literary age now considering no government or people think literature’s worth it to fund or nurture much anymore.

OMG! UR GR8 world

As I sit here at my computer today, with the collective knowledge of the world at my fingertips on Google and potentially the whole world reachable through my phone, Skype, email, blog, smartphone, text, Facebook, Pinterest, and Wikipedia I know the world has shrunk beyond anything we’ve seen before.

It’s brought the world to me and me to the world.

I can do stuff through my blog now which no amount of screaming from my rooftop would have allowed in the past.

Story Time - A Thank-You to the Teachers
Story Time (Photo credit: betsystreeter)

In such a world, the age-old wisdom regarding the benefits of reading literature has all but disappeared. At most, one could use a book or two on a long train ride or devote a few seconds to reading a tweet or two on the way to work.

And work means developing the network that gets the world still closer, running between cities, managing workers in different locations, benefiting from disparate groups increasingly wanting the same things, basking in the closeness of the globe,  moving things from one place to another, providing services that we didn’t know we ever needed, wondering at ourselves as global citizens at the acme of civilization.

It does not involve Jane Eyre sitting at the window, covered by curtains, in her  corner, reading Bewick’s History of British Birds because there was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Our world has little space for us reading Jane Eyre in the activity of reading the old book.

For my part, I would just ask Jane to give up all that reading, books and bird talk and just Google.

UR Jobless Miss Bronte! RUOK? XOXO

English: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte by J. H....
English: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte by J. H. Thompson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Charlotte Bronte were alive today, she’d probably be unemployed or better still, sending out a million resumes a day with the following qualifications in the following order:

Objective:

Seeking a challenging position as governess in a household with one or more children of reading age. Opportunity to exercise reading and writing skills desirable but not required.

Skills:
  • Proven ability to tend to snotty-nosed children
  • Demonstrated skill in playing nursery rhymes and children’s software on IPad, Galaxy and other tablets
  • Advanced knowledge of cooking, cleaning and washing household items
  • Proficient in writing grocery lists on Smartphone apps, letters on WORD, and filling out household forms on pdf documents
  • Excellent written and communication skills in person and paper formats. Fast learner in e-format.
  • Ability to assist in conceptualizing, drafting and revising book-length works on traditional paper or electronic formats [Note to self: delete for most jobs due to perceived over qualification]
English: Old book bindings at the Merton Colle...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6 Lit myths 2gud2BTru

Having pondered the above situation of a current Charlotte Bronte, I decided to do away with my literary  pursuits  post haste and devoted myself entirely to bursting the following myths about literature and reading:

**Myth 1. Reading literature widens horizons:

Thanks to technology, the world is already shrunk for me. I’m not interested in widening it  but I don’t know what to do with the world now that it’s so small.

[I have a niggling doubt that good old William Blake in that book I handed the aliens may have been providing a clue when he churned out the following lines somehow so many years ago:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour ]

Should I go back and ask the aliens for my book of verse back in case this bloke Blake or whatever his name is said something more there?

**Myth 2. Literature gets rid of stereotypes:

I heard the other day that someone got into a place of worship in Wisconsin last month and shot at people just because they were wearing turbans. Or perhaps because they were brown.

Now, I’ve been thinking, science tells me they’re brown just because they have more of a pigment called melanin in their skin cells. And maybe they have a reason for wearing turbans. Just like some wear this long thin piece of cloth tied around their necks quite arbitrarily that they call a tie.

Everything about that whole incident  seemed so irrational to me that it still hurts to think about it.

Reading Gulliver
(Photo credit: Dublin City Public Libraries)

[But I can think of a book where people got shrunk (or were they just little people?) and they fought all the time. Sometimes simply because groups couldn’t agree on which end of the egg to break first to eat it boiled. Gulliver’s Travels! Someone in that book said: “Honey, I shrunk the kids! And they’re behaving hurtfully. ” Or was it a movie?

Now, had we read up a bit more on Sikh art and literature, if not Jonathan Swift, would  we still be inclined to act so strangely in a place of worship?]

**Myth 3. Literature encourages empathy by putting us in the shoes of others unlike ourselves:

I don’t need this aspect of literature anymore. I have my laptops, tablets, smartphones that update me with the news from around the world regularly. I keep myself informed about the plight of people. I have knowledge at my fingertips.

[Just the other day, I heard someone say, what’s the point of increasing compensation for factory workers? They’ll just be more lazy and do drugs with the extra money.

English: First edition title page

I remembered my old copy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and  how I had seen the world through the eyes of Mary’s father and lover who were both factory workers. Rather sentimental, true, but human. And that worker Stephen Blackpool of Coketown from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

Now the guy who said don’t pay the workers much for their own good  was working for a white collar job of course. I don’t think he has ever heard of Mary Barton. But I couldn’t agree with him immediately because Mary’s face came in the way.

What turns knowledge into enlightenment?

Where did I misplace that book now?

I had better search Google Scholar and read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel again in full-text!

**Myth 4. It’s possible to tap into the collective wisdom of our civilization through literature:

Now this is the most obsolete of reasons why people must have read the classics in the olden days. Fortunately I don’t need to read anymore. If I have a problem, I can tap into hundreds of forums. Or better still, I can get a synopsis of a wise book somewhere by someone else.

In a nicer, cooler way with pictures.

In my global age, I only move sideways around the globe from place to place. I don’t like moving temporally down the ages. I’ve figured out how naive those old guys must have been  locally stuck to their own regions writing long letters in longhand sealing them with wax in the candlelight. What did those guys in powdered wigs and cotton loincloths know about civilization?

This point being incontrovertible, I stopped reading and moved on to bursting the next myth.

**Myth 5. You can find yourself through quiet contemplation of literature:

Now that the Himalayas are all 3G covered, the ancient sages must be having a great time with an additional source of wisdom up there in their solitude.

But I’ve been trying some solitude down here myself on the internet. I love that there are so many voices here. The din prevents biased viewpoints about anything. But everyone is talking and I don’t know who to listen to. They’re all alive (mostly), learning as they go, just like me, about life, love, literature, science, people.

Who can I learn from? Are my life’s problems really that new?

Perhaps if I’d lived for a while longer than the rest of us, just a few generations more, I could check out some patterns about people’s lives and match them with my own. (But the immortals I know–Tithonus of Greek mythology and Ashwathama of the Indian epic Mahabharata are both literary figures and I’ve given them up now.)

everything comes back full circle
everything comes back full circle (Photo credit: pupski)

How come all those people and patterns of emotions and problems in those books I gave away  and folklore I refused to hear from my Grandmother and epics I endured with disdain seem coming back to me through troubled voices here on the phone, through Skype, on email, on blogs, by pings, by text messages, on Facebook, on advice columns and on forums?

What did those people do faced with their old problems in new worlds confused in changing times that they recorded in their literature?

I remember a book of verse I had that recorded Tennyson’s wonder and confusion at the changed understanding of the globe of his times through geological discoveries:

There rolls the deep where grew the tree

O earth, what changes hast thou seen,

There, where the long street rolls hath been

The stillness of the central sea.

**Myth 6. I won’t read literature in the global age

I’m thinking, if those aliens turn out benign, it might not be a bad idea to ask them if  they’ll be willing to fund a project or two which will explore how literature can benefit society in the age of technology in a shrinking world.

My thoughts are also running in that direction today because of something that happened just now. As I tried Googling for “There rolls the deep” to quote above (to show you how well-read I am), most of my hits turned up Adele’s “Rolling in the deep” pushing  In Memoriam so far down that I got thinking that this omniscient being called the internet is not so unbiased after all.

Rather than displacing the pursuit of literature and the humanities, perhaps the aliens will see some benefit in exploring the elusive essence of what makes us human down the ages.

Or perhaps I’ll just ask them to return my book.

Sigh!

whr r u? w8 4 me! i wnt my bk bak! 2 nite? 2 moro? whn?

*

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Originally published Aug 28, 2013 on bottledworder.com

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27 thoughts on “Why I don’t read literature”

  1. Entertaining. I urge you to read T S Eilot if you havn;t already. He says it is how it is , in a way that makes you realise you have been in the presence of a master. It’s more like drinking than reading.

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  2. The ancient Greeks lamented much the same way. Different alphabet, of course. This is a funny, witty, and perceptive account. It should have made me apprehensive and vaguely sad, but instead I find it exhilarating. I’m twice your age (three times?) and here you are with the same concerns, the same (inner and outer) resources, voyaging the brave new world with the best of them, fighting the good fight!
    When in history could the likes of you and me lift our voices and have them heard all over the world. Maybe not by multitudes, but we — each of us — don’t have to reach multitudes to be efficacious.
    We’re all doing it, right here with our blogs!
    So be of good cheer.
    And remember Dame Julian of Norwich. (My husband loves her, he’s a big fan of Julie’s.) She probably wrote it down somewhere, but I think it got passed around mostly by word of mouth: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
    (Or as well as all manner of thing ever gets. As we say these days, in our better moments: It’s all good.)

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  3. Very well done !
    Books and computers are bigger on the inside than on the outside, because they were/are products of creativity & the imagination. There are many who choose not to go past the cover or the book flap ( they saw the book and read the trailer) . They enter the computer, but don’t go past front veranda .

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  4. This is very strange to me….because last night I had a terrible dream about all the things I keep up with online…..Facebook, Stumbleupon, Reddit, the Chive, WordPress…..all of it mixed with images of Minority Report going through my head. I kept justifying to myself, “I have everything set to private, people can’t really see where I am at.” Then I woke up and finished a Kurt Vonnegut movie that made me want to cry.
    Reading your blog, really hit home, but in a really terrifying way. It is almost sad that books are increasingly loosing there ability to do anything but look pretty on a shelf.

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  5. I READ (pronounced as the color “red”) your myth-breaking jeremiad. Fascinating. Isn’t it ironic that I type with letters and have to read what I have wriiten, a kind of literature (aka “letters”). Please look at my previous blog postings about “Why I Read” and other words. I used to teach three words I remember form some book or some teacher: read (in order of importance) for ENJOYMENT, ENRICHMENT, and INSIGHT.

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  6. Interesting viewpoint and rather unsettling. From a personal perspective I’d find it difficult to be disconnected from “the classics” but then it is “horses for courses”. You’ll have to forgive me I’m full of bite sized homilies today which I;m trying to repress.
    Thanks for stopping by and having a look at my blog. Appreciated. Don’t think the aliens will find much there either :).

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  7. Thank you very much for this. I think we have to view the digitally connected world the same as when listening to conversations in the pub. We encounter such a wide range of beliefs, not all of them learned or even rational, because in the pub anyone can say anything they want, most of which is rubbish, including what I say myself. Occasionally though you’ll spot the rare sage who wanders in from the cold and is willing to share a few pointers with those of sufficient potential to spot her in the first place. I hope I have the potential, and thank goodness for the occasional sage who is willing to share.

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  8. I think you’re right. In the modern context, I suspect literature has become more a reserve for snobbishness than a practical method for learning. The real question is whether authors can now write anything that would constitute ‘new’ literature – something that meets the same needs in the modern context that literature of old met in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And I think the answer is yes.

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  9. I loved this – brilliant – and of course rather sad if one hasn’t edged quite comfortably into this brave new ( shrinking ) world.
    Ironically, It actually is one of the pleasure of the blogging world to find people who are still interested in literature and the classics !!!

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  10. Love your post! Finding the classics on Google isn’t as easy as you’d think, what with newer works re-using classic titles and lines, because they’re just so … classic. And the old classics don’t have so many people pinging their blogs and otherwise raising their SEO numbers, so yeah, they do tend to drop down the page.

    Still, who needs the classics when you can find every bit of wisdom you need on the Intarwebz, right?

    Do you think those aliens have room for me, too?

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  11. Having all knowledge *ever* at your fingertips can lead to more confusion and superficiality – we don’t understand anything, because there’s “no benefit”, to quote my students. We still have to live, and learn the same lessons our grandparents did – it’s ironic that, perhaps, progress and globalisation makes it in some ways harder to do so! ❤ ur post 😉

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      1. Probably – I turned into a grumpy old man when I wasn’t looking! Everything *does* seem to be changing more quickly than ever, though, including the ways in which people communicate and make art. I do think our capacity isn’t changing at the same rate, and experiencing something new and bigger is not necessarily better than really exploring and understanding a smaller world. There, my metamorphosis into crotchety reactionary is complete! 🙂

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