Reminder: A Hermeneutics of Suspicion is Bad for Children

From C.S. Lewis’ underrated and under-read book An Experiment in Criticism:

“For this reason I am very doubtful whether criticism is a proper exercise for boys and girls. A clever schoolboy’s reaction to his reading is most naturally expressed by parody or imitation. The necessary condition of all good reading is ‘to get ourselves out of the way’; we do not help the young to do this by forcing them to keep on expressing opinions.”

“If you already distrust the man you are going to meet, everything he says or does will seem to confirm your suspicions. We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can’t be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader.”

A few thoughts occurred to me as I ran across these passages.

1) Imitation is not a “skill” or “learning objective.” You can’t measure it. It’s a natural response that stems from a place of deep admiration, a desire to participate in something good/beautiful, and an impulse to see a good/beautiful thing reproduced in a new way.

2) Teaching a young student to love literature is very different from using literature to teach critical thinking skills. Critical thinking attempts to decode and to deconstruct for the purpose of finding the “true” (i.e., subversive!) meaning of a text. I can’t think of anything more contrary to the way a child approaches the world. Critical thinking doesn’t produce wonder, it crushes it.

3) Let me clarify: not all critical thinking is bad. Obviously, as a teacher, I don’t want to encourage students to simply accept philosophical, theological, scientific, or literary ideas at face value. But I also don’t want them to become disposed to suspicion–as if cynicism is the only virtue that’ll keep us safe from a mindless devotion to the deluge of media information. If critical thinking will have a proper place in education, it’s to instill a greater admiration for the form and context of a work of art. Unfortunately, it’s too often an act of analysis that is too quick to say things like, “Shakespeare was gay!” and “Chaucer was a proto-feminist!” and then revel in the idea that these authors were merely subversive thinkers during their time according to contemporary western cultural values.

4) If we’re going to teach young students how to read well, we should aid them in their natural capacity for wonder. My one year old son’s ability to wonder at his fingers and dead leaves in the same breath can be disarming to someone, like me, whose mode of operation is primarily task-oriented. Wonder can also be undermined by a constant concern that everyone is trying to sell you something or convince you of an unorthodox opinion. I’m more and more convinced that sometimes we can relax. If you enjoy a movie, painting, or piece of music, don’t worry about whether there’s an underlying agenda. Just enjoy it. And then ask yourself why you enjoy it. It turns out that you may learn something more wonderful about yourself and the thing you enjoy.


George Saunders on Writing

I might be overly concerned with my writing style, but every time I finish a piece, I’m disheartened at how “mechanical” it sounds. It’s as if I’m stacking LEGO blocks from different LEGO sets on top of one another, creating a recognizable but oddly proportioned figure. Part of the problem, I think, stems from the fact that I teach writing to junior high and high school students–i.e., I spend most of my time teaching writing formulas and structures so that students can work on plugging in the right information in the right places.

The result: I sometimes impose an artificial structure onto my ideas, instead of allowing the ideas to take shape naturally on the page. Structure can’t be abandoned entirely, but I can’t be authoritarian about it either.

The folks at the Literary Hub recently interviewed George Saunders about some of the best writing advice he’s received. The following excerpt got right to the heart of my own writer-ly insecurities. It also reminded me of Alan Jacobs’ dictum, “Read at Whim!”

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Once, when I was a student, I cornered my mentor and hero Tobias Wolff at a party and assured him that I had sworn off comedic sci-fi and was now writing “real literature.” I think he sensed, correctly, that 1) this was not an attitude that was going to produce my best work but 2) there was going to be no arguing me off of that position (only time could do that). So he just said, “Well, good. Just don’t lose the magic.”

Which I then proceeded to go off and do, for about four years. The “advice” part of that came home on the day I made the breakthrough that would lead to my first book—that is, when the magic (finally) came back. The new writing was fun and (see above) ostensibly entertaining—it came out of a place of joy and orneriness, instead of a place of stiffness or control or pedanticism. And to suddenly recall his advice at just that moment was a sort of force-accelerator, and I’ve never forgotten that, for me, “magic” has to be the operative word—getting the prose to go somewhere and do something you couldn’t have foreseen at the outset.
I saw that this distinction I’d been making between “entertainment” and “literature” was not meaningful, not at the highest levels.

So, this principle of proceeding not by head (ideas, concepts, plans) buy by heart (moving ahead line-by-line, trusting my ear, trying to communicate with and entertain an imaginary reader, being ok with being lost and even seeing this as an indicator that the story wants to be more than I have in mind for it) has stayed with me and has led me to think that, when self recedes, there is something else that rushes in to replace it, and that thing is smarter and kinder and just more trustworthy than self, i.e., the self we create through control and rumination.

The Bookish Life

Good stuff from Joseph Epistein at First Things:

What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.

The Pleasures of Reading

I’ve been thinking about how we read, why we read, and whether it can be done well.

For example, check out my review of Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Image result for the pleasures of reading in an age of distractionIn addition to Prior’s book, I’ve also been reading two other books about reading.

The first is Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading Well in a Distracted Age. A couple things I’ve enjoyed about Jacobs’s book:

Jacobs does not offer strategies, techniques, or formula for getting the most out of a book. He simply explains why and how reading can be enjoyable. His first foundational principle for reading for pleasure is to read at whim:

…for heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout–some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called ‘social and ethical hygiene.’ (17)

This is a timely word. In a numbers-obsessed culture–we count steps, calories, proteins, words, pages, sleep hours, etc.–everything has become a standard and a burden. Whimsy is a byword, and joy is suspect.

Don’t misunderstand Jacobs. Whim isn’t an excuse for thoughtlessness and bad taste. If taken seriously, whim will lead to ever expanding horizons, greater beauty, and a hunger for deeper truth. Jacobs makes a distinction between whim and Whim:

In its lower-case version, whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge–it can become for us a gracious Swiss pedagogue of the mind. (41)

Diligently reading at Whim means being selective, choosing only those books that bring the most pleasure and stir up interest. This is harder than it sounds. Especially, if like me, you constantly stand under the dark cloud of “BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ TO BE EDUCATED.” But reading strictly for numbers and standards isn’t reading. Reading, if done well, is a transformative experience (e.g., On Reading Well). It will change a habit of thought or perception. Reading at Whim facilitates reading well because it precImage result for what we see when we readipitates the enjoyment necessary for reading slowly, carefully, and lovingly.

I’d like to think I’ve had such an experience recently. I was at the publicly library and (at whim!) picked up Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read. This is not the kind of book I would normally think to read. But as soon as I flipped through a few of the pages, I added it to my library stack. It’s a fun but also serious analysis of how our minds project images of characters from a story based on the words we see on the page. If I’m not careful, thinking aImage result for what we see when we readbout how reading works while I’m reading can cause me to stall out. It’s like thinking about thinking while thinking: at some point the system crashes.

But Mendelsund’s approach, using images alongside words, avoids the usual problems of reading about reading because he forces your mind to process the same information in multiple ways. The result, so far, is an enriched reading experience. I don’t think I’ll read the same way again.

Happy reading!

Reading Well

I’m working my way through Karen Swallow Prior’s new book On Reading Well, and so far I have very few quibbles. I’m especially grateful for this paragraph in the introduction:

To read well is not to scour books for lessons on what to think. Rather, to read well is to be formed in how to think. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis argues that to approach a literary work “with nothing but a desire for self-improvement” is to use it rather than to receive it. While great books do offer important truths about life and character, Lewis cautions against using books merely for lessons. Literary works are, after all, works of art to be enjoyed for their own sake rather than used merely for our personal benefit. To use art or literature rather than receive it “merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.” Reading well adds to our life–not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.

I’m nodding along with almost everything KSP says. And in passages like this, I tend to verbalize my excitement while reading. On several occasions now, my wife has asked if I was okay or if I had called her from the other room.

The difference between a receptive reader and the utilitarian reader, however, is easier to distinguish from a distance than it is in the moment. In some ways, I think graduate school has ruined me for reading. I’m too quick to ask about the “agenda” of a book in its historical moment, or to wonder about what it’s saying about race, gender, politics, etc. These sorts of analyses have their place, but the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. So much so, I sometimes forget that literature isn’t merely a fanciful declamation of politics, philosophy, science, or theology.

Especially as a literature teacher, all too often I bend under the pressures of benchmarks, objectives, and the development of “critical thinking” and “skills.” I’m always wondering, “What practical piece of information or skill can the students acquire through reading this text?”

It pains me to admit that I think this way.

But this is the whole problem with reading literature in the first place. There is NO PRACTICAL purpose. Despite what every floundering humanities department will try to sell you, learning to read Dickens will not prepare you for the job market. People with English degrees aren’t actually in high demand. Everyone struggles to find a job after college. Period.

So why do people keep getting literature degrees and why do people, more generally, continue to read literature in their spare time?

The answer, I think, has something to do with virtue (a la KSP) and beauty. As KSP notes, when literature is read well, it doesn’t simply inform us. It forms us. We are changed when we read literature, in much the same way that experiencing a Van Gogh painting or Bach’s Mass in B Minor can change us. Beauty forms us because it draws us to something that is both Good and True.

The key word here is “can.” Reading a book, looking at a painting, or hearing a symphony does not magically–i.e., without some personal effort–change us. We have to train ourselves to receive beauty. If nothing else, KSP’s book–so far–is a great reminder that our unexamined reading practices and habits will inhibit us from undergoing the kind of formation reading can enact. We can’t simply read. We must read well.

Some questions I have as I continue to read:

  • What specifically are the habits and disciplines of reading should we cultivate?
  • Can reading de-form us? Even if we’re technically reading well, is it possible that a book is bad for us? In other words, should we always be receptive readers?
  • Does reading well entail a certain amount of prior philosophical understanding? For example, in the introduction and at the beginning of each chapter, KSP helpfully lays out classical definitions of the various virtues and then shows how they appear in a particular work. Does every reader need to have a similar philosophical and historical foundation to read well?

I can already sense partial answers to many of these questions. So, needless to say, I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

Some thoughts on Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

I recently reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” and I had one of those experiences where rereading a piece after several years resulted in new insights. Many of which seem obvious in hindsight. The first time I read Orwell’s essay I was either in college or just graduated. I remember being obsessed with his list of questions every “scrupulous writer” will ask himself:

1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

On the whole, I still endorse these questions. In fact, I often write variations of them in the margins of my students’ papers. I also still enjoy his critique of the five writing samples he collects from various publications.

However, after reading it again, I’m simultaneously more enthusiastic about his thesis but less enthusiastic about how he illustrates his point.

On a pop-culture level, Orwell is right. The relationship between thought and language is relatively unexamined. We are quick to repeat words and phrases without any keen sense of what they mean or what we mean by them.

To pick an easy example: does anyone know what “Make America great again!” really means? No. But by golly it is a wonderful empty bucket for anyone to dump their ideas of “Make,” “great,” and “again” into.

The underlying assumption, which Orwell leaves largely unaddressed, is the idea that words are not inherently attached to their historical meanings. Speaker’s meaning—as Owen Barfield argues—is everything. Nevertheless, the fluid relationship between meaning and language allows for the kind of manipulation of language that results in the political chaos Orwell describes.

The political sphere in particular, with its sloganeering and repetitive rhetoric, functions as a linguistic siphon. Language originally used to communicate complex philosophical concepts is forced into the small tube of the immediate political context, and then disseminated to a wider audience that has no awareness of the etymological significance. The result is a handy slogan with viral capabilities.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to politics. But as a general thesis of how language and thought affect each other, you could do worse than Orwell’s assessment.

My less-than-enthusiastic response occurs when Orwell begins to discuss the mind numbing effects of political speeches. He uses the image of a speaker who utters words of dead imitation:

The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

I don’t deny the veracity of the experience Orwell describes, but I do take issue with two things:

First, political rhetoric and the ancient prayers of the Christian Church, recited by congregants on a weekly basis, are hardly comparable. The one is the product of the needs of an immediate context—e.g., election seasons. The other is part of a tradition that spans two centuries of painstaking reflection, prayer, and analysis from people in different time periods from all over the world.

Second, repetition does not necessarily imply mindlessness, nor does it inhibit sincere thought. My own experience has been the opposite. Memorizing poetry, for example, has made me more attune to the rhythms of language, the nuance of vocabulary and syntax, and has revitalized otherwise mundane experiences. This would not have happened had I not taken the time to learn through repetition.

The same could be said for the purpose and function of the prayers in the church. Congregants repeat the Nicene Creed every week not for the purpose of social conformity, but with the assurance that what they’ve said is true and the truth will continue to reveal himself to them as they meditate on the words of the creed.

As Orwell himself argues, language affects thought and thought affects language. If this is the case, then we would do well to repeat, daily and often, passages where language and thought are in harmony with each other. Free thought, as Orwell seems to conceive of it, is not free from repetition. Sometimes our freedom occurs only when we’ve freely subjected ourselves to the imitation of higher standards. Such ideals won’t be found in our political sloganeering, and so we should avoid such habits in our speaking and writing like the plague. But I’ve never known an artist who doesn’t owe a great debt to a previous artist—someone they first imitated when they began to develop their craft.

So too with writing. Find the good stuff, and then, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”

The Art of Self-Knowledge

As someone who enjoys writing, I’m my own worst critic. I don’t see every flaw in my work. I only see the flaws. The difference is slight, but one results in the willingness to revise and the other in creative paralysis.

I remember having similar experiences as a kid when I took piano lessons. Some days I would practice a single scale until I could play it perfectly. The imperfections motivated me to keep practicing. But on other days, the imperfections were too much to handle. I wished I could push the piano out of a ten story building, light all of the copies of music on fire, and yell, “To hell with it!”

So when Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a class of high school students surfaced in my news feed, I was convicted of my all-too-often cynical attitude:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

He reminds me that the practice of art is more like exploration and less like decoration–it is about the soul of the artist. My worse criticism of my own writing stems from this confusion. Instead of asking myself, “What does this blog, poem, or essay say about my soul?” I ask whether it compares well to the writing of my peers or my favorite authors.

The same principle applies to the way I consume art. Instead of worrying whether I like the right movies or books, I could inquire about how my response to particular stories reveals some new aspect of my soul.

In an interview from 1968, Ray Bradbury describes human beings as “tension collecting animals.” We sometimes suppress violence, grief, and joy because those impulses are not always appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in. These tensions, however, accumulate over time and need to be exercised.

We usually don’t know what tensions we’ve accumulated. Sometimes we feel emotions without a clear understanding of where they’ve come from or why we’re feeling them. So, ray-bradburyas Bradbury says, the artist will come along and help us discover what they are and allow us to exercise them. It’s a form of catharsis—an often neglected avenue for self-knowledge.

Whether creating or consuming art, we should learn to posture ourselves for inquiry. We don’t always know what tensions we need to exercise on a particular day, so we need to go exploring. Because of my own propensity to care more about art as decoration instead of exploration, I’ve set up some guidelines to follow:

1. Follow Vonnegut’s advice: “…starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”  If Vonnegut’s advice were a rule, I think it would read, “Create first, edit later (but only if you want to).” I regularly stifle my own creativity by editing the first draft of a poem as I’m writing it. From here on out, I plan to write the poem and only edit once I’ve written everything I want to write.

2. Don’t overwhelm yourself with art. Instead, allow yourself the space to get to know one painting, sculpture, poem, or song. Inquire about your experience by asking “what tensions am I feeling? What tensions is the artist representing?”

3. Pay attention to your preferences and start there. If you’re wondering what counts as good art, then you’re thinking about this backwards. If you do not find Van Gogh intellectually or emotionally engaging, then don’t try to force yourself to like him just because everyone else does. Exploring art isn’t a competition, and it doesn’t require a refined taste. Like the things you like and ask yourself “why do I like this?” Only when you start reflecting on your own experience will you eventually begin to see what makes an artist like Van Gogh great.

4. Be aware of how much art you are consuming and how much you are creating. You’ll always consume more art than you create. It takes several years to create a movie but only an hour and half to watch it. If you find that you haven’t created anything in a long time (paintings, poems, music, mashed potatoes faces etc.), then consider making time for your own art. Creating art often has the effect of not only revealing something new about your soul to yourself but of helping you to better appreciate good art when you see it.

5. Finally, follow Vonnegut’s last instruction: don’t show your art to anyone because “you will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded…You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.” For a host of obviously bad reasons, this is a hard rule to follow. I like it when people like the things I create, and without fail, this desire eclipses the real rewards of making art. Art as self-expression is an act of exploration. Who knows what knew thing I’ll discover about myself or about the world through the crappy poem I wrote today? My job is only to be interested. The rest is not my business.