In Praise of Reading: How Literature Enables Us to Inhabit New Worlds
Arnold Weinstein Considers the Role of Reading in the Construction of the Human Spirit
In 1881 Henrik Ibsen titled his most scandalous play, Ghosts. At a crucial moment, the heroine, Mrs. Alving explains to the Pastor that the present moment is a grisly replay of the past:
I almost think we are all ghosts—all of us, Pastor Manders. It isn’t just what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It is all kinds of dead ideas and all sorts of old and obsolete beliefs. They are not alive in us, but they remain in us nonetheless, and we can never rid ourselves of them. I have only to take a newspaper and read it, and I see ghosts between the lines. There must be ghosts all over the country. They lie as thick as grains of sand. And we’re all so horribly afraid of the light.
In English, “ghosts” has a Gothic connotation of spooks coming through windows and walls, but Ibsen’s Norwegian term is “Gengångare,” which means: returnees. It does not seem fanciful to suggest that our present moment is ghost-ridden, in exactly Ibsen’s sense: we are discovering—every day, it seems—just how haunted our present scene is by a toxic living past. And we too, like Ibsen’s heroine, find our evidence corroborated in the newspapers (where one expects today’s news).
What is The 1619 Project, if not a brilliant historicist revision of our country’s founding, bent on showing us that the arrival of enslaved people in this country (two years before the Mayflower got here) is one of the dread Ur-narratives of our culture, limning a living past of structural racism that has never been fully acknowledged. Many of us absorbed, as children, along with our Thanksgiving turkey, a much rosier fable about the American project’s beginnings, void of slaves, replete even with fraternal relations with the indigenous tribes who had long lived there before the white man’s arrival. That narrative, too, has been largely complicated if not debunked. Most of the news about the past that now comes our way is freighted with threat, telling us of long-ago injuries that have yet to heal.The literature class is every bit as much a public utility as light, gas, water and electricity are.
This story of open wounds finds a counterpart in our current medical understanding of individual and group trauma and damage. It is no accident that Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, published in 2014, has been a best-seller for the past 150 weeks, and its account of injury and abuse—whether in the form of PTSD suffered by soldiers returning from war, or in the more domestic sphere of physical and sexual abuse experienced by women and children in our society at large—offers a dark picture of ongoing damage, of ghosts that refuse to die or disappear.
Whole communities, we are now told, carry scar tissue and festering wounds of this sort. And the country itself seems utterly polarized in its response to these dark tidings, this drumbeat of news about a freighted, injury-ridden past, making many of us wonder, from day to day, when the next shoe will drop, and what else will be exposed.
Not easy to be an optimist today. Nor is it very easy to believe in a beneficent past, a healing past, a past that strengthens and supports us.
And yet, based on a lifetime of teaching literature, I would like to suggest that the core issues of my professional life yield exactly that message, that payload: reading and teaching Literature produce good ghosts: they have a unique and salutary reach into the future; they make us stronger and freer; they are among Culture’s untapped resources for growth and health.
Let’s start with Teaching. I still remember my teachers, old though I am. And I have to believe this is true for you too. How could we not? When we consider the elemental forms and forces of growing up, we often ignore the centrality of teachers. They enact a precious generational compact that links the old(er) to the young. Consider the sheer number of hours, days and years we all have spent being schooled by our instructors; it dwarfs most other exposures.
Each year, from childhood on, young people are taught—nurtured—by a corps of adults who are not their parents. And they carry this with them. That too needs rephrasing: the legacy of (good) teaching is not merely ‘carried’ with them, it inhabits them. Let me rephrase this yet again: my (best) teachers still live in me, despite their being long dead: they continue to shape my thoughts, their long-ago gift keeps giving.
Let me now talk about reading Literature. Learning to read constitutes our life-changing entry into both adulthood and society. We acquire this skill in our earliest years, and we use it as our source of knowledge and communication until we die. There is enormous energy and firepower and outright agency here, and it will not do to think of reading as some kind of quiet, solitary, passive experience. On the contrary, it is explosive, it constitutes—well beyond any 2nd Amendment rights—the arms we bear.
Visually, reading produces almost nothing to see, except perhaps for the occasional blinking of an eye as it peruses the printed page. But ask yourself: what is actually happening here, especially when it comes literature? I read a poem, a play, a novel, and I find myself propelled on a prodigious two-way street. I am transported into the mind/time/life of my text, and it is transported into me.
And this is repeatable: I encounter it now but can and will experience it over and over, with or without the text in my hand (or on my screen). Thinking galvanizes it. Memory replays it. Life re-enacts it. My colloquy with long dead authors is forever present tense. Nothing in science fiction such as time or space travel can rival it. I am not only ‘moved,’ I am ghosted.
Let me try to illustrate this.
I open Sophocles’ Oedipus, and I am transported to 5th century BC Athens, into a public story of plague and mass dying, a private story of blindness followed by dreadful knowledge: all is this is taking place not only now as I read, but also later, in the beyond. I will carry it with me, and actually use it as a lens, including when I reflect, say, on our own country’s recent encounter with plague and mass dying, an encounter also informed by ignorance and dread.
Sophocles is exposing the hubris of what most of us take for granted, so-called self-knowledge: not only does Oedipus not know that the man he killed at the crossroads was his father, or that the woman whose bed he shares is his mother, but his ignorance is exemplary, because it obliges us to consider our own frequently benighted state, in arenas private and public, human and planetary. Consider John Barth’s take on these matters: “The wisdom to recognize and halt follows the know-how to pollute past rescue. The treaty’s signed, but the cancer ticks in your bones. Until I’d murdered my father and fornicated my mother I wasn’t wise enough to see I was Oedipus.” Barth helps us see that we live in a world of “effects” but that we are routinely blind to their long-hidden “causes,” until our sometimes fateful awakening.
Ponder, for a moment, your own life along these lines: how our grasp of who we are—and have been—evolves over time, moves in fits and starts, is larded with blind spots, is subject to stunning surprises and reversals. And it happens every day, either when folks sign on to Ancestry.com and discover a ton of things they never suspected or when they discuss with their doctor the findings of a recent MRI or CT scan. Or we comb through history: our own, our country’s, our world’s, and it can feel like robbing a graveyard. A day or so ago, the New York Times featured this headline for one of its articles: “Chile searches for its disappeared, long after dictatorship.” What will it be tomorrow?
Freud famously saw something else still, equally dark, in Sophocles’ play: evidence that the young are programmed to slay their elders if they are to gain maturity and independence. Now rethink my comments on teachers: the very institution of teaching reverses this damning thesis, by staging the relation between young and old as a multi-year process of nurture and growth, a decorous social contract of instruction and exchange.Literature enables us to live other: elsewhere, elsewhen, vicariously, neurally, sentiently, not subject to any law.
It is often said that teachers have a mission. After all, they rarely become rich or famous. But we’d be closer to the mark if we said that teaching is ultimately a form of transmission, not unlike the energy systems that drive our bodies and our cars. Literature teachers help wire the young into this force-field. I still remember my 11th grade English teacher’s passion for the poetry he taught us, and it was that passion that conveyed why poetry matters.
This is no simple issue of “modeling:” it’s an adult conveying to the young how fiery words on a page can be. The literature class is every bit as much a public utility as light, gas, water and electricity are, but unlike those other forms of energy, there is no off-switch here, no point at which this material is dead or spent. Familiar, feeble terms such as “instruction” and even “interpretation” scarcely begin to take the measure of these volatile forces.
Most dwellings have two sorts of shelves: a medicine shelf and a bookshelf. We think they are different. But consider: we go to the medicine shelf to ingest small pills that are to do prodigious things inside us, as they work their molecular will: curb pain, defeat infection, remove anxiety. Can we not say that we also ingest literature? Once read and felt, that special assemblage of words and plot takes up permanent residence inside us, informing our thinking, growing our stock, adding to who we are. I have tried to show, in this little essay, the sway, the life they possess inside me. One might say that I am made up of foreign parts: after all, I didn’t write those texts.
But in reality these materials—first presented by teachers, read and then reread, perhaps eventually lectured on and written about (as I am doing now)—are what I have literally ‘incorporated.’ They come from elsewhere but are intimately mine, shaping what I think, see and feel. They live in me, they haunt me. They are good ghosts.
Finally, they are good also for the fundamental reason that they are fictional. Literature—even at its bloodiest—does not wound. I do not ‘get’ the plague that is killing the Athenians, just as I do not stab out my eyes as Oedipus does at play’s end. Murder and death are real; Inherited genetic disease is real; PTSD is real; domestic abuse is real. But the ghosts I am now saluting—the ones who inhabit the books I read and love—are not made of flesh and blood. Once a play is over or a novel finished, I put the text down and re-enter my life.
Aristotle described catharsis as what happens when an audience watches (fictive) tragic events on stage and undergoes a bodily experience: purgative, cleansing. One’s organism is affected. I believe that reading literature can produce a comparable response. I take those (fictive) events into my mind and heart, and they will live there as long as I do: not as toxin but as imaginative possibility. The take-away from a Greek tragedy continues to feed and inform how I see my own world: yesterday’s, today’s, tomorrow’s. This ancient material arms me, strengthens me, is fuel.
Literature enables us to live other: elsewhere, elsewhen, vicariously, neurally, sentiently, not subject to any law: free. No amount of real-time travel or tourism or even drugs can come close to this. I think we owe a debt to such good ghosts.
From The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing by Arnold Weinstein. Copyright © 2022. Available from Princeton University Press.