A Brainy Battle: Literature vs. New Books

At this year’s bookish cocktail party (that is, if there were such a party in plague times), I might have read just enough new books to hold my own in conversation. Perhaps the latest books are actually more like cultural commodities, wrapped in bright jackets and praised or panned by the critics. They are certainly ephemeral, as the new lists of Highly Anticipated Books of 2021 have already begun to eclipse them. I can imagine a reader wailing, “Wait, I’m still shopping for Christmas this year.”

We just can’t wait for the new books. If only we could all slow down. These 2020 books can be read any time–even in 2021. I consider a book “new” if it has been published in the last decade. For God’s sake, that’s much newer than Gilgamesh!

I admit, I read mostly classics and older books, because they are much better-written than contemporary books. I do not mean that there are no great living writers. There are. My mind is a blank at the moment, but I promise to list some at the end of this post.

Of course I am not as strict in my standards as the critic Joseph Epstein, a former editor of The American Scholar. In the essay, “Our Literary Drought,” recently published at the National Review, he laments the state of 21st-century literature, which he believes has been diminished by the Digital Age. He begins by talking about the flourishing of literature of 1955, the year the National Review was founded: Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Albert Camus, André Malraux, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Kingsley Amis, and Jorge Luis Borges were all working then.

And I agree the middle of the 20th century was a great time for literature, though my list of ’50s writers would include Jean Stafford and Mary McCarthy!

Epstein goes on,

When and why [the good times for literature] stopped rolling are complex questions. That they have stopped, that we are in a less-than-rich period for literature today, cannot be doubted. Ask yourself whose next novel among living novelists you are eagerly awaiting. Name your three favorite living poets. Which contemporary critics do you most rely upon? If you feel you need more time to answer these questions — a long, slow fiscal quarter, say — not to worry, for I don’t have any impressive answers to these questions either. Recent years have been lean pickings for literature.

Epstein notes that some periods of time are naturally richer in literature than others. He cites the Elizabethan age and 19th-century Russian as brilliantly productive ages. We can’t argue with that! But he adds that some periods of literature are lacklustre, and we are in one. The Digital Age has taken a plunge for the worse.

Epstein writes,

Everything about it, from 280-character tweets to Kindles, is anti-literary. What the Internet offers is information, whereas literature sets out in pursuit of something deeper. Reading online, I have found, is different from reading a book or serious magazine. I, who rarely skim books or magazines, online find my fingers twitching on my mouse when confronted by any piece that runs to more than ten or so paragraphs.”

I do agree about the problems of reading online–it is the madness of abundance. Online I keep clicking from article to article to find more news about a specific item–and paper keeps me calmer, perhaps because it limits the amount of reading.

Joseph Epstein isn’t the only one who yearns for more golden literary ages. Another fan of classics is Emily Temple at Literary Hub. During this plague year, she fond herself turning to older books. In her essay, “Want to Feel Better? Stop Reading New Books,” she writes about losing herself in Daphne du Maruier’s Rebecca, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, José Saramago’s Blindness, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Temple writes:

While reading each of these novels, and others, I found myself transported in a way that the newer books I was sticking between them could not accomplish, as good as I might have found them. And look, I read some damn good new books this year, like Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. and Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks.

Temple concludes these books helped her escape from the problems of 2020, but I wonder if that was all. Many readers eventually reach the point of wanting to go deeper in their reading and turn to the past. New books speak to current events and experience, and even historical novels are interpreted from a “modern” point of view every 20 years or so. It is always good to get some distance, to read from a different point of view, to come to realize that “now” is not necessarily “best.”

And now can I deliver on my promise to list some great writers of the day?

Of course!

Some of my favorite living writers are Louise Erdrich, Jayne Ann Phillips, Isabel Allende, Larry Woiwode, Deborah Eisenberg, Anne Tyler, Ellen Gilchrist, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Lethem, Gail Godwin, and John Irving.

Alas, some of the greats have died this year, among them Elizabeth Spencer and Alison Lurie. We will miss them.

Who are the great writers of today?

Loving Mediocrity: The Digital Generation vs. “David Copperfield”

Will they get off the phone to read David Copperfield?

The other day I blogged about a teacher who claimed in a post at a Millennial blog that she hates the classics.  Not only does she loathe Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Bronte, but she believes that Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the seventeenth century.  

I wish I hadn’t read this woman’s boastful declaration of ignorance.  Why ? Because I do not want to be the kind of person who despises the younger generation. 

“This is the end,” my husband said, laughing.

 It is, though we laugh.  We dismiss this problem from our mind, because it is not our line of work.

This problem of barely literate, proud, classics-bashing students is becoming the norm, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. We have all read about students who demand “trigger warnings” and decline to read books on the syllabus that may trigger bad memories.  (That makes for a lighter reading load, doesn’t it?)   And if I may interject something  controversial, we all have been (choose one or more) cyber-bullied, sexually harasssed, threatened, beaten, mugged, raped, or traumatized by war.  Reading great disturbing literature  can even be therapeutic.

There is now a glut of articles about falling enrollment in the humanities. The digital age has changed the ball game: YouTube, Twitter, and other social media are now frantically integrated in some classes to engage students.  Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future,  believes attention spans have shortened since he published his book in 2009.  His thesis  is “that youths are too caught up in social media to outgrow adolescent ignorance.” 

Nowadays, it is worse, he says.  Instead of just making phone calls, students write 3,500 texts a month and take countless selfies.  He says, “ I disallow screens in my classes and make freshmen write papers by hand, preferably in cursive. Between classes, I sit on the quad and count the kids rushing from one building to another as they focus on that tiny screen to see what monumental things have happened during their 90 minutes offline.”

In The American Scholar, Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College and professor of English at Drexel  University, writes about  teaching a 10-week one-credit course on Dickens’s David Copperfield.  Most of the students read very little, but committing to one long book  a semester gets them to engage with a classic.  She is proud of the success of this program and has expanded it.  She wrote in 2016,  “A filmmaker colleague will teach John Ford’s classic exploration of racism, The Searchers, in the summer, and an art history professor will teach Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, paintings that depict the evolution of surgical procedure, in the fall, when they will be hanging together in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Again, sounds like a light load, doesn’t it?  But many students admitted to Cohen that they thought David Copperfield was the magician! Now they’ve read the book.

Bravo!  Whatever works.

N.B.  There have always been mediocre, even bad, teachers. I do not mean to idealize the teachers of my generation.  During my teaching days,  I once sat in on a college composition class in which the students were asked to do two things:  free writing for fifteen minutes (most spent it surfing on the net on their computers) and then the teacher went around the class and asked each student to identify the beginning and end of a paragraph in an essay.  No discussion of the essay, mind.  Just look at the indentations. Surely we weren’t first-grade prodigies, but we learned about paragraphs  from the Dick and Jane basal reader!