Miscellaneous

Reading Darkness to Find the Light

In times of crisis, what should we read? Should we read books that expose the dark side of humanity, or should we seek instead more uplifting books? Readers (and film-goers) today seem to fall into one or the other category. People are either going for Animal Farm1984, or It Can’t Happen Here, or they are indulging in more feel-good novels like Three Things About Elsie, A Man Called Ove, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I fall in the first category.

I must admit that I am by default somewhat of a pessimist. I am not surprised by evil in the world because I believe that humans are tempted by selfishness. That being said, I have spent the past two years actively trying to be more optimistic. Consequently, I am much less cynical than I used to be. I’m certainly much friendlier.

But I am increasingly drawn to dark fiction and histories that explore atrocities. My current project explores responses to the trial of Louis de Berquin, a 16th century Lutheran executed for heresy. I have scoured Inquisition registers and read treatises in defense of the enslavement of indigenous people (such as Sepúlveda’s), in hopes of “understanding” and recognizing today the arguments people have historically given for violence. There’s nothing new about the rhetoric white supremacists use to defend their xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist beliefs.

I guess I feel a responsibility to put my linguistic and historical skills in the service of social reform. It is important to note that there have always been dissenters, like Bartolomé de las Casas or Erasmus, who challenged dominant perspectives on social issues. Still, studying the rhetoric of unpleasant treatises has made me more sensitive to the language politicians throw around in the public square. Perhaps it is because I am more informed that I am less cynical. When all arguments appear equally dazzling, you don’t know what is true and what is false.

Furthermore, literature has taught me to trust my heart as well as my mind. Over and over again, medieval/Renaissance treatises in defense of violence privileged reason over feeling. Sepúlveda appealed to Aristotle in defense of the enslavement of the indigenous people of the “New World”. When we tell others to suppress their feelings, we are asking them to deny a part of their humanity. The deeper I dig into history, the more I realize how essential pity and mercy are to good, ethical decision-making. I am also reminded that reform is possible. Those treatises didn’t have the last word.

Although I do not know what we should be reading in this period of crisis, I do know from personal experience that reading unpleasant works has made me less, not more, cynical. They have inspired me to take action in order to nip hatred in the bud. Consider that the far-right is populated with some of the most cynical people you’ll ever encounter. Their prejudices and conspiracy theories come from a place of fear. And predictably, they have a poor knowledge of history.

Reflections

Reading Matters

Books in Black Wooden Book ShelfOnce upon a time, the majority of people living in the “West” were illiterate. They couldn’t read or write. Today, in some parts of the world, women risk their lives to go to school. A large percentage of the American population is functionally illiterate.

And some literary critics and literature professors are quite proud to admit that they hate reading!

I taught English last summer to a group of adult Congolese refugees who were pre-literate (that’s the politically correct way of saying that they couldn’t read or write in any language). Women my mother’s age couldn’t even hold a pencil.

If you are able to read my post, you are incredibly privileged. We all are. And yet, so many of us think that reading is a waste of time. Academics write books NO ONE reads, not even their colleagues. Someone admitted in the comments of a booktube video that she never reads classics. Professors are assigning only the books that the students want to read, but what do students want to read? Facebook? Twitter? Nothing?

Ironically, those who are fueling this movement against the teaching of “difficult” literature or the classics are the same people who claim to be the most concerned about privilege. For centuries, a significant portion of the Western population did not have access to books. Those who did, maintained their privilege by fighting against educational reform in their countries. I find it incredibly disturbing that so many intellectuals ridicule reading. I certainly understand the interest in having a more diverse literary canon, but there seems to be a growing apathy surrounding the study of literature. The rising cost of university education and the job market are partly to blame, but most of the apathy or (in some cases) overt animosity comes from those who are in the literature business, so to speak.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Because Americans have access to every kind of food imaginable, over half of it goes to waste. We are used to having everything at our fingertips, so we overlook the fact that what we have is an incredible luxury for hundreds of millions of people around the world. The same can be said about literacy. Many of us take for granted the ability to read and write. We’ve been able to do it for as long as we can remember. As a result, we no longer privilege reading over other forms of knowledge consumption. People can spend their free time doing whatever they want, but I find it disturbing that so many people ridicule reading as somehow beneath them.

If I promote literacy online, I am guaranteed to get a few comments accusing me of being a snob. “You think you are better than others because you read?” No, I don’t. Why do you feel so defensive? If you have forgotten the benefits of reading, I am here to remind you that this is a skill that not many people have. Tyrants control people by limiting their access to education. Literacy has fueled revolutions.

I don’t care what you read as long as you read. Other forms of entertainment are wonderful, but they cannot replace reading. As I write, a girl somewhere in the world is risking her life to read a book.

This post was inspired, in part, by this video by Clifford @ Better than Food: Book Reviews.

Children's/Coming-of-Age, Juster, Norton

Review of The Phantom Tollbooth

What was it about?

Milo is bored. He is no longer interested in the toys and books he owns. Suddenly, he notices a package in the corner of his room. As it is neither Christmas nor his birthday, Milo doesn’t know what the package is for, but he is curious to unwrap it. The package contains a turnpike tollbooth with instructions for constructing it. It also includes highway signs and coins for paying tolls. Milo gets inside a toy car, drives up to the tollbooth, and is transported to a world in which words are food, watchdogs keep time, and numbers are mined but real gems discarded. In this Kingdom of Wisdom, two brothers (King Azaz the unabridged and the Mathemagician) live on opposite sides of the kingdom because of their rivalry over whether words or numbers are more important. Unfortunately, the rivalry led to the banishment of their adopted sisters Princesses Rhyme and Reason to the Castle in the Air. With King Azaz’s support, Milo, the watchdog Tock, and a prideful insect named Humbug set off for the Castle in the Air to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason and bring peace and harmony back to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

What did I think of it?

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is replete with wordplay, metaphors, and common expressions. I personally enjoy didactic tales for children wrapped up as fables/fantasy stories. The Phantom Tollbooth is of this tradition. It is witty, and insightful. Children can enjoy meeting the wacky monsters, and teenagers and adults can pick up on all the clever wordplay. Parts reminded me of La Grammaire est une Chanson Douce (Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song) by Erik Orsenna, which I read for one of my French classes last semester. Parts also reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Disney film Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land. The illustrations by Jules Feiffer brought the story to life. They were an essential component of the story because they helped me imagine the creatures in the Kingdom of Wisdom. I highly recommend The Phantom Tollbooth.

Favorite Quotes

“Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.”

“You can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”

“Infinity is a dreadfully poor place. They can never manage to make ends meet.”