I came across this interesting essay called “Narcissus Regards a Book” and thought I’d bring it over here. I don’t know if I entirely agree with his argument, but he brings up some salient points. How do we define the worth of great literature when popular culture constantly tells us that the value of art is merely to flatter and entertain?
I disagree with his points that the value of reading should extend beyond simple pleasures however. Reading a well-written novel or short story can be deeply pleasurable, whether on the most simplistic level or the most challenging. Being a writer, of course, I fell in love with words and the sound of words and reading them, whether aloud or in my head, can be as wonderful as listening to music.
People are turned off to challenging books because academia insists that there be a rigid consensus on what should be applied to the canon, a fact the author delves into in his essay. Yet this problem begins much earlier in high school, quite frankly. During the whole Mark Twain n-word flap a few weeks ago, I noticed among the number of Tweeter feeds and within the comments section on blogs that there were quite a few young people who expressed their dislike for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, noting that their hatred for this book goes back to when they had to read it in high school. I can go into the various ways in which literature is taught in grade schools, when young minds are at their most impressionable, that do more to turn these readers off from books, but the most important point is that high school has a tendency to treat all of its subjects like a chore students have to get through in order to graduate, while ignoring the real pleasures of learning period. High school students should have the freedom to not like something on the canon and freely express why. After all, that is what critical thinking is designed to do: engage readers on a level that enables them to actually think about how a work actually achieves or fails to achieve its objectives beyond using “I like it” or “I hate it.” Now I can blame No Child Left Behind for this, but this phenomenon has been going on long before that.
Perhaps what’s needed more isn’t a condemnation of popular culture but a re-examination of the way we teach literature in K-12 grades so that young readers can embrace the value of reading material that is both pleasurable and challenging.