Reading Matters to a Veteran English Professor
I was a senior in college (I majored in English), I remember being in a
cafe one evening with a group of law students whom I did not know very well.
I remember responding to some story one of them told with, "that reminds
me of a scene in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Some
in the group were startled initially at the eccentricity of my remark. One
I think knew the novel. In an instant I could see they saw the story as
richer because of the novel.
You are, in some situations, on the outside if you are a reader of serious
literature and risk being seen as eccentric, even irrelevant. I remember
in high school agonizing over this separation my reading, my tastes, seemed
to cause between me and others in my class. I would regularly recite the
poems of Emily Dickinson to myself as I walked down the halls as a way of
creating some internal order and company. I could not tell anyone about
this, except my English teacher, since I then had no friend who shared my
taste for poetry. After college, where I had found many more friends to
share poetry with, I wondered about reading as an activity. Was it healthy?
Could one justify it? Didn't it separate me from the world and its concerns?
Was it relevant? Did literature "matter" in some fundamental way?
Then one day, in reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, I came
across a passage that changed my life.
afternoons [of reading] were crammed with more dramatic and sensational
events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime. These were the events
which took place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people
concerned in them were not¸¤real people.Ë But none of the
feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a ╬real╠ person awaken in
us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or
misfortunes ....A `real' person, profoundly as we may sympathise with
him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses...we
should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know [all
the joys and sorrows in the world], and the keenest, the most intense¸would
never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development
stops our perception of them. It is the same in life; the heart changes,
and that is our worst misfortune; but we learn of it only from reading
or by imagination; for in reality its alteration, like that of certain
natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish,
successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the
actual sensation of change (118-9).
This passage helped guide me in mydecision to pursue graduate study and
to become a professor of literature.
What I got that day from this passage in Proust is that reading literature
deepens our feelings of joy and sadness, because the events in literature
are more concentrated than they usually are in life. Further, we carry
the image of these intense feelings with us, so that when we encounter
"real people" we are able to respond to their joys and sadnesses
more intensely because our ability to imagine their own hidden emotional
life has been expanded. We have the image within us so that we can receive
¤realË experience more profoundly than we otherwise would.
I still believe this after twenty-two years of college teaching. Although
not every poem or work of fiction or drama grabs every student, I've witnessed
the development, and sometimes the awakenings of a deeper compassion in
many of my students. This is often sharply visible to me when we are studying
works about ¤differentË people from themselves, people they might never
know that intimately in real life. This is the sense in which literature
is a moralizing, a civilizing force, in the largest, most encompassing
sense of the term. It can enhance that quality Keats valued so highly:
the quality of ¤negative capability,Ë the ability to enter another person's
feelings without letting one's own ego, one's own perceptions, get in
the way; the capacity to empty oneself to receive the impression of another.
There are always cautionary tales. One shouldn't assume that if someone
is a reader then he or she is necessarily a supportive, or even good person.
There have been mass murderers who were readers. They must have been reading
different books, or reading for different things, for thrills, for suspense,
out of boredom. One of the things reading together does, as in a class,
is that it can, I think, help to foster the kind of reading I'm talking
about, the kind which helps us listen more attentively to our own hearts
in relationship to others' hearts and so make us more sympathetic to others.
I also think that there is another dimension to reading than its ability
to nurture a keener sympathy for others. Sometimes reading illuminates
the hidden caves within us, our memories, thoughts, so giving them a value
we otherwise might not accord them. I teach Virginia Woolf and George
Eliot regularly, and I see students stunned by a sudden new attention
to and valuation of their own thoughts and choices that these writers
stimulate. A couple of times students have even had to drop the class
because they told me the illumination was too powerful at that moment
in their lives. I, of course, take the journey too, again and again, always
to new places.
So, learning to value others and one's own deepest self: what a ride!
I feel blessed to be able to be someone who stands at the door, handing
out the guidebooks, there for consultation for anyone who wants to take