One of my favourite formulations of literature — as opposed to myth — is Kenneth Burke’s claim that it is equipment for living. Literature provides us with new perspectives and unusual ideas, it gives us discussions of moral quandaries, it brings new people into our lives, it defamiliarises the familiar and pushes the limits of language and thinking.
I agree with your four categories for why a work might have currency, but I want to focus on the second: survival value. Are literary works also equipment for survival? Perhaps not. For that, maybe consult a dating guide, a medical textbook, or a flyer from the sperm bank. I suggest that living isn’t surviving. Not anymore anyway. Continue reading #53 On equipment for living
Could there be a cult based on Hamlet? Sure, cults (short lived belief systems) spring up all over the place all the time. But I’m pretty sure it would never become a religion (long-lived belief system) because there is way too much uncertainty, ambiguity and ambivalence in Hamlet.
“To be or not to be?” — that is not the question for inspiring devotion. Continue reading #51 On quality
That was my favourite letter in some time. Thank you. I also love irony, at least when I’m aware of it.
The progression of agency in the history of literature was something I never really appreciated until you said it. It makes sense given your snapshots; a deus ex machina-heavy ancient Greek play through conscious fate-addled Shakespearean contemplator up to the unrelenting conscious agency of the agent James Bond. OK the last one’s a joke, and it’s because an invincible agency is as boring as a completely yielding one, which suggests to me this Continue reading #50 On depth
Of all the many great topics one could learn about, I pretend to have learnt the most about literature. This is the home wicket with predictable bounce for the pseudo-intellectual. Pretending to know about this or that branch of science always allows room to be caught out with some googly of jargon or the flipper of “facts”. Happily literature is devoid of facts, figures, findings, theorems and axioms. This means that it’s very hard to say something incorrect and so the trap for young players is in not saying enough.
Even more happily there is no overlap between what people should read and what they have read. Everyone knows there are a bunch of French, Irish and Russian blokes who wrote long novels about 100 years ago that deal with The Human Condition. But everyone reads Eat, Pray, Love or, at best, something by Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood.
You’ll get a few runs for rattling off some respected contemporary authors, but that’s really just rotating strike. Life at uni is a Twenty20 match and you’ve got to hit intellectual sixes to stand any chance of impressing the attractive hipster boy/girl you’ve met at that party. You need to Proust over the short square leg boundary, or get on the back foot and Joyce behind square, or dance down the wicket and Dostoevsky that shit over long-on.
This cricket metaphor broke down a while ago but if I’ve taught you anything it’s that content, precision and coherence don’t matter as long as there are a lot of words and they sound good. Specifically, use a lot of words that are names of novels and authors and simply lie about what you’ve read. Freestone’s First Rule is first for a reason: it’s not how much you’ve read or what you know, but how much people you know think you’ve read.
Here’s a simple recipe for reading great literature: buy second hand copy of The Brothers Karamazov with pre-dog-eared pages. Carry round with you at uni, commenting on its profundity. Each night advance bookmark inside the novel 30 pages while watching How I Met Your Mother DVDs. When bookmark reaches end of novel, place in bookshelf in prominent place in living room for people to see. Add to list of favourite books on Facebook profile. Repeat with remainder of Western Canon.
This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.