Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Criterion for Good Literature

My wife and I are avid readers, and hope our children will be as well. We are bibliophiles, acquiring books wherever we can, but we also try not to be packrats, so we are continuously pruning our collection. We are thus concerned—as every cultured person should be—to decide what books are worth reading.

It should go without saying that not all books are worth reading. This is not to deny that reading is a good in itself. Reading develops the imagination, cultivates an appreciation of silence, and improves literacy: that is, the more one reads, the more one is able to read, with a longer attention span, a greater vocabulary, etc. But these are all secondary goods, ordered to something beyond themselves. Only a good imagination is worth developing; to take the limit case, a pornographic imagination, which even most popular novels encourage, is far worse than having no imagination at all. Silence is good because it aids contemplation; but if one’s silence is filled with garbage and unreality, it would be better to get out into the real world. And literacy is good only if you use it to read good books; one can be quite a “good” reader, but so acclimated to crap that one is quite unable to read real literature.

A preliminary, but too simplistic, criterion for good literature is whether it helps or hinders our ability to read Scripture. Novels that make your heart pound, or brusque magazine captions, may make Scripture less accessible. But noble stories can help us appreciate the nobility we find in Scripture.

But although this criterion is a start, it is obviously too simplistic, both because it doesn’t explain what makes a story noble and because it doesn’t cast any light on what it means to read Scripture, and why one would want to.

Perhaps a better criterion may be found in the classical idea of text actuation. In the pre-modern world, I am told, it was expected that one would memorize texts and then use them to articulate one’s one situation. To use the example of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in a time of great difficulty, one might imagine the terror and quiet nobility of Frodo and Sam as they entered Mordor. Comparing one’s own situation—confronting someone in the office, volunteering to serve the poor, or even fighting distractions in prayer—to Frodo’s, one might be able to “re-read” the situation, to see the value of pressing on against extraordinary odds, taking one small step at a time, etc. Or the silent nobility of Aragorn (so horribly misrepresented in the movies) might help one to appreciate the nobility of underappreciated perseverance. One might see one’s own quiet works, or one’s neighbor’s, as somehow parallel to a scorned ranger who will one day receive his crown.

A friend recently shared with me how he saw his own process of conversion in the light of Charles Ryder’s in Brideshead Revisited. On the last page of the book, when Charles genuflects before the battered old tabernacle in poor misused Brideshead, then returns with a happiness that Hooper can never understand, many Catholics find an image of their own inexplicable faith, emerging from all the highs and lows of a sinful life, ever drawn by that providential grace of “a twitch upon the thread.”

Most books, I think, are only marginally open to such actuation. When Harry Potter fights Voldemort (I don’t know the stories well, having read only the first one, years ago), I guess we can see some image of our own efforts to stand up against evil, somewhat parallel to Frodo and Sam. But does Harry’s experience really parallel ours? It seems to me—ignorant of the stories as I am—that what makes Harry Potter attractive is not the parallels between his struggles and ours, but the parallels between our will to power and his magical abilities. We are most likely to actuate these texts, I submit, in daydreams about flying, wishes that we could make household items levitate, and other desires to be snazzy. In other words, the Harry Potter texts become “actual” to us more in daydreams than in our real lives.

The idea of text actuation gives some precision to other ways of evaluating books. Even secular people recommend Harry Potter because he is exciting, and makes us want to read—but to what end? Christians and other people motivated by morality argue that Harry presents the battle between good and evil, and that is surely true. The question is, does Harry Potter help us to understand our own struggles with good and evil? It seems to me that he falls short, both because the good and evil of these novels bears little relationship to the good and evil of our own lives and because what really engages people about Harry is not his struggle with good and evil, but his magical abilities; an imagination trained on Harry Potter is an imagination that looks for occasions of magic, not occasions of moral heroism.

(Again, let it be said that I am not an expert on the Harry Potter texts; I hope that the principle I am articulating can make sense even to those who disagree about this application.)

My wife and I have been discussing, somewhat fruitlessly, a children’s book about wood sprites, gnomes, and tiny trolls. I think the principle of text actuation does apply to children’s literature. In the case of small children—though not in the case of adults—the development of imagination is an end in itself. Many of Dr. Seuss’s books, including favorites of ours such as McElligot’s Pool, If I Ran the Zoo, and the supreme If I Ran the Circus, focus on imagination itself: the main character looks at an ordinary situation and imagines how he could enrich it. Such books encourage imaginative play—and imaginative play that builds upon ordinary experience. And the wonderful, and wonderfully accessible, poetry of Seuss encourages the child to articulate his imagination, to think of verbal articulation as a good in itself. Trying to “be like Dr. Seuss” by rhyming about the world and our embellishments thereon means verbal practice, a central task of the toddler years.

The Pooh stories are more subtle—and, I have found, less appealing to the very youngest audiences—because they tend to come closer to great literature, considering themes of friendship, exploration, and creative problem-solving. When, during a flood, Pooh’s “missage” in a bottle brings Christopher Robin in an upside-down umbrella to rescue him from up a tree, we experience the joy of homecoming, the creativity of using what we have in unexpected ways, and the surmountability of all our little troubles. Indeed, I think one of the most wonderful things about Pooh is that all the pickles he gets in are funny, encouraging us—and especially young readers—not to take our own predicaments too seriously. But also in Pooh, one of the great joys is little songs: again, a focus on articulation, encouraging us to “be like Pooh” by playing with words and verbally exalting little things.

What about the wood sprites? I have argued, negatively, that they provide a parallel universe, little people whose lives are like ours but with none of our problems—like a sitcom. To the contrary, my wife argues that these stories encourage us to look at nature as something magical and alive, to see a tree not as a dead shape, but as a world unto itself. The real quesiton, I suppose, is how the target audience reads the stories. I suspect that my negative argument applies only to adults: yes, I see the little people as a parallel universe, but my little boy sees it as his universe; that is, he doesn’t wish he could be a wood sprite, with an alternative morality (or whatever I was imputing), but gazes at the trees and wonders if the wood sprites are there, and contemplates how beautiful a forest is, what a magical world surrounds him.

The example serves, I think, to show how the theory of text actuation helps us rethink a text—and how our judgments can fall short when we fail to appreciate how the text is actuated for the real-life reader. What matters in Harry Potter, as in the wood sprites, is not what theories we can lay over the text, but how it comes alive for the people who read it: what draws them in, and thus how the text allows them to re-read their own situations.