The Future of Reading (Hint: It's Not All Bad)

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Bruce Cratsley

Well that gets to the topic of language, which you clearly love. You're pretty optimistic about literature in general. Do you have the same optimism about language? As with literature, there are always Cassandras saying our vocabulary is shrinking, or that there's too much Internet-speak.

Languages grow and change. Presumably the ancient Hebrews had no word for "typewriter" because they didn't have a typewriter—you have to add words. Certainly the Internet and cell phones and so forth have changed abbreviations and even syntax and grammar, but I think that this is often very pleasurable and very witty. Every era has phrases that it over-uses that become bywords and catchwords and you forget what they really meant, but for me, as somebody who is interested in living speech and living writing, I find it actually quite ingenious and interesting. And again, I like the necessity of constraint, that different forms call for different kinds of responses, that instant writing is going to be less formally elegant in a certain kind of way but it's also going to have a certain kind of powerful directness.

There's that whole debate—and I talk a little bit about it in the book—about whether President Obama as a candidate was so eloquent that his eloquence was misleading, and therefore you had to sort of call yourself to account and say, "No no, it's just the language that is moving you"—as if language could ever be just language.

But this distrust of the power of language is one of language's powers. And this goes way, way back to the ancient Sophists and to Plato and to this question about whether language is alluring and seductive. It is, but that doesn't also mean that it isn't highly specific, descriptive, capturable. That dialogue, that back and forth between the dangerousness of language and its precision—following that and getting pleasure from that is the power of reading and the power of literary reading.

So just as we don't necessarily need to worry that we're reading Emily Dickinson poems less than we used to, we shouldn't necessarily worry that we're using the word "amiable" less than we used to, because in both cases new options will come up, and we will replace what we lose?

Well also it's quite cyclical. Things come in and out. If you look at clothing fashion, and language fashion—and language and clothing have very often been compared throughout their long histories—things that seem like they will never return as linguistic forms do return. The 19th-century power of oratory is making a comeback.

Things get recycled, and they come back in a slightly different form. So I don't think we're ever going to lose any words, and I don't think we're ever going to lose any modes of expression. Some will become more powerful for a moment and then the next generation will look at them and say "I can't believe everyone always said 'whatever.'" Words will disappear and return in a different way. Many of these words that are superlatives for us like "awesome" and "awful" and "terrific" actually have highly specific meanings which are quite different from the easy way in which we use them now. But that doesn't mean that the words themselves don't have power. I'm a great reader of the Oxford English Dictionary. I love the historical meanings of words. I feel, and many other people do, too, that the histories of words are part of their meanings—that none of those things ever really drop out.

That recalls this gorgeous passage in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia where Septimus is explaining why we shouldn't worry about the lost books of Alexandria.

And I think that Stoppard has it absolutely right—so does Borges. It's the idea that we'll be rewriting those books sometime soon.

Anything else you'd like to say summing up this book and the message you were trying to get out?

It was itself very pleasurable to write and it gave me a chance to think about works that I have been reading and thinking about through my entire life, not just recent years. For me it was a re-encountering for me of why it is that literature is so important to me and I hope that some of that comes across in the book.

I got the sense that you were having a lot of fun with it, actually.

No kidding. Absolutely. It was really, really fun to think about what text would illustrate this thought or what text that made me have that thought. I had to bring it to consciousness and say, "Oh yes, it's about To the Lighthouse" or, "it's about Keats's sonnets."

What's the single biggest problem facing literary criticism today?

Specialization. I was very privileged to learn the long arc of literature—I won't say the canon, because now I really do believe there are many canons. I love making analogies—you can probably see this in the book—between different periods, and making unusual juxtapositions of metaphysical poems and Romantic poems, and for me it is such a great pleasure to have a wide historical range and a broad generic range, to be able to talk about novels and poems and plays and intellectual prose. I think that sometimes the profession urges people to specialize in a period or an author or a place or a genre in a way that doesn't permit this, and for me that would have been a real loss.

It sounds almost like you're saying at some point in the book, "Stop quibbling, get some guts, and have the courage to make big, bold arguments."

I absolutely feel this. I feel that the future importance of literature and literary studies comes from taking risks and not from playing it safe. And I do believe in making big arguments, when they're well-argued—big arguments that aren't well-argued are just hot air—because there's the possibility of doing so, and maybe the cultural opportunity to do so, even maybe the need to do so in the current conversation. Literature and literary reading does equip you to think in those terms, to think very widely over place and time and to think about the right words in the right order—those are Coleridge's notions about what makes language function so well.

I think we're ready, and have been ready for some time, for literature to be as it was for so many years, the place from which arguments about culture, art, humanity, the social, the religious, the spiritual, the political arise--all these things are embedded in literature, they are what literature is made of, as well as language. We can turn to literature, find in literature, material that discusses many of the things that are obsessing us and ought to be obsessing us about life today. Literature refers and literature performs, so it talks about things and it talks within them. It is very powerfully qualified to be a way that we discuss our world, because it has made our world.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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