There was a lot of talk at yesterday’s symposium about books and the future of literature that I think always strikes a chord with us book lovers because we fear we, and future generations will be robbed of that irreplaceable experience of connecting with a good book.
Then today I came across this article in the New York Post, and it very much tied in with the discussions yesterday. It seems to me that really what the problem is, is that we are living in a world that is obsessed with an aversion to risk. That if we can’t see the direct value of any undertaking then we’d probably better not pursue it and instead do something sensible. This overriding attitude then competes with my generation who is perhaps the first (or amongst the first) that’s grown up being told to “do what you love?”, “love you’re job” etc and has dared to believe that’s possible. As a mature aged student undertaking a second bachelor in a field that’s (tried and tested) pathways to career success are disappearing, with a brother rapidly approaching 30 who’s dared to try and make it as an artist, and another brother slogging away at a 9-5 job while quietly writing a novel in his spare time, I suspect my parents wouldn’t retract their advice but would really have liked it if we’d happened to love accounting or teaching or engineering or something with a little more stability. (To be fare my parents are very supportive and proud of all our ventures)
Anyway I digress. Some things that stood out to me from the article…
We do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others.
I think this is particularly valuable to keep in mind for the study of humanities, but also that it is true of everything. How many major scientific discoveries have been a happy accident – a bi product of another venture? Ian Flemming discovered Penicillin because he accidentally left a Petri dish open over night… In no aspect of life can we simply decide something’s value because the benefits are not immediately visible.
Gopnik recounts an anecdote from Bill James in his article where James argues that in talking about whether baseball is really a business, and not a sport at all, that if the sporting interest in baseball died, baseball would die; but if the business of baseball died – but the sporting interest persisted, baseball would be altered, but it wouldn’t die. This is the crux of the future of Literature and books as a physical form, as more and more texts become available only in digital form, literature and our value of it may change and it may become more niche to read books in print, while a love of literature remains the book will power ahead.
If we abolished English majors tomorrow, Stephen Greenblatt and Stanley Fish and Helen Vendler would not suddenly be freed to use their smarts to start making quantum protonnuclear reactor cargo transporters, or whatever
The opportunity cost of these great minds dedicated to literature and literary pursuits is not often looked at rationally. What would these people be contributing to the world if not studying what they loved? It’s unlikely their skills would be transferable to the production of knowledge seemingly more “valuable” to society instead and in turn, we’d miss out on everything they’ve contributed to culture and discussion.
I can feel myself getting less and less coherent here but bare with me…
English departments democratize the practice of reading. When they do, they make the books of the past available to all. It’s a simple but potent act.
We live in an age where technology is progressing at an exponential rate. I have grown up to see music go from vinyl to mp3 in the space of my short lifetime. From having a dial phone to a touch screen and landlines becoming almost obsolete. Technology has brought us amazing things at such a rapid rate I think we are all a little prone to panic about what we’re losing because of it. However, as Gopnik says, books allow us to transport into worlds so far gone or so far imagined we could never experience those lives in reality. There’s nothing that can compete with that private experience of learning and connecting with humanity through literature through the quiet pass-time of reading. I think what we fail to remember through all this panic is that the things that matter and that we love will survive. For instance, I have had the privilege of living overseas at a few different times in my life, and you build friendships which are destined to exist in different timezones and cultures and across seas and as each experience comes to an end that familiar feeling of panic and fear that these people who have come to mean so much to you will suddenly be abolished from your life – however as each experience has taught me, the people who are really important will always make the effort and be worth the effort of keeping in touch, and the less important friends will make contact every now and then but in the end you naturally drift apart and that’s ok. So- i try to keep that little anecdote of life in mind when I find myself stressing about living in a world progressing too fast.
Gopnik talks about fellow English professors and their tireless pursuits and the best answer he’s ever heard to justify studying literature:
Why was he a professor of literature? “Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.” You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects
Again, back to my comment of “do what you love”, sometimes its as hard to justify our careers and obsessions as it is to put into words why you love someone. You can’t always identify the moving parts. Literature offers so much to the world, often different things unique to the individual; it’s a place for connection for the lonely, an porthole into another world for the inquisitive, an invitation into the mind of the brilliant, but we can’t see every event of added value that a piece of literature offers the world, just a cumulative love.
I will finish as Gopnik finished:
We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.Os but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and edure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough