I’m enjoying this little project I’ve undertaken, in which monthly I pick up a paperback work of fiction from my local indie bookstore, and write up my thoughts about it. It keeps me up on my literary fiction, which I’ve always enjoyed reading. And I think exposing oneself to new voices can yield unanticipated intellectual dividends. You know, even if no one reads your blog.
I’m under no illusion that literature can cure the world’s ills, but I’ve long held a kind of romantic view of good writing, or good humanistic works in general. I listened to a podcast recently in which the host of the show, remarking on an Iranian arthouse film, asked how could someone believe in bombing a country after seeing its most affecting art? In not so many words, he was making a suggestion that the hawkish Americans calling for sanctions against Iran might change their minds, if only they were exposed to the right humanities.
Of course, we have similar theories when we teach history in the classroom. In the past I’ve had my students read memoirs by Michael Gold and Nelson Peery, for example, in an attempt to get them to see how life is experienced by people in other times, places, and circumstances.
On the other hand, Janice Peck’s examination of Oprah’s Book Club suggests literature doesn’t necessarily serve a humanistic function, particularly when presented in an environment sympathetic to neoliberalism. Peck writes convincingly in The Age of Oprah about the ways in which Oprah, on her show, was able to transform literature into a means for self-actualization and self-building (182). Rather than encouraging readers to place themselves into others’ shoes, Peck shows how Oprah continuously directs readers to write themselves over the protagonists.
Teju Cole gives us cause for pessimism as well, in a great piece he wrote for the New Yorker’s website. Cole asks the question: if literature is supposed to make us more empathetic, and more humanistic, why is Barack Obama, the professor, the intellectual, the “reader in chief,” waging war so fervently? His conclusion is ambivalent. He writes that when Obama selects targets for special forces and drones to kill, Cole trusts “that [Obama] makes the selections with great seriousness, bringing his rich sense of history, literature, and the lives of others to bear on his decisions. And yet we have been drawn into a war without end, and into cruelties that persist in the psychic atmosphere like ritual pollution.” You could bring this story full circle, by conjuring the piece of trivia that Obama once sat in a Columbia classroom taught by Edward Said. After all, if anyone has convinced us of the anti-humanistic ways in which literature can work, it’s Said, right?
This is all a very long way of committing to a selection for my May fiction. So the next book I’ll be taking a look at is Zachary Lazar’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant. Another work by an author I have yet to read, and also like my past two selections, this one was on the New York Times top 100 list last year. And it’s about the state of Israel, so no matter how it turns out, I’m sure I’ll won’t be at a loss of things to say. See you next month!