Real and Imagined

Essays and Novels by Amy Tatko

The World'S Longest, Most THrilling ConVERSATION

            Literature is “the world’s longest, most thrilling conversation,” in the words of Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Richard Russo. The conversation covers all topics and centers on what it means to be human and what we are doing here. Through the writing and reading of stories, we seek to make sense of our lives and understand the human condition. From the earliest stories of the Hebrew Bible from 1200 B.C. and Homer’s epic poems from the eighth century B.C., writers have been responding to and influencing one another’s ideas and stories. Readers respond and influence, too, in their minds as they read and in discussions with others. The tradition is democratic in spirit; all are welcome to the conversation.

            In Russo’s view, the conversation of literature is conducted by writers and offered to readers, with newly published writers joining the ongoing conversation.

            “…To me bookstores remain places of wonder. Like libraries, they’re the physical manifestation of the world’s longest, most thrilling conversation. The people who work in them will tell you who’s saying what. If you ask, they’ll tell you what Richard Russo’s up to in his new one, but more important, they’ll put in your hand something you just have to read, by someone you’ve never heard of, someone just entering the conversation, who wants to talk to you about things that matter.”

            In my view, in the conversation of literature, readers also talk in response to the books that they read and the authors who write them. Anyone who reads a work of literature is a participant in the conversation.  Close reading by active readers makes for the liveliest participation.

            For those who devote time and care to the reading of literature, the unique nature of the conversation soon reveals itself. The conversation carries on among writers, between readers and writers, between readers and characters, and with oneself. When I read Moby-Dick, I converse with Herman Melville and also with his characters Ishmael, Queequeg, and Captain Ahab, but mostly I talk to myself. The writing is the starting point, and where the conversation moves from there is entirely up to me. I may wonder about Melville’s intentions or wish to ask him a question or make a comment to him, yet what thrills me most and holds me captive are my own responses, ideas, interpretations, questions, and possible answers. All reading is Reader Response to some degree. Oneself is the subject that fascinates one most. 

            Literary critic Harold Bloom mentions the conversation of literature in his book Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. Bloom posits that William Shakespeare created self-overhearing and refers to an essay by Marcel Proust about reading as self-overhearing. In the essay, Proust writes, “Reading is not conversation with another. Its difference consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought, but while we remain all alone, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power we have in solitude, which conversation dissipates immediately.” I must agree with Proust, because I am a reader, and I recognize the truth in his observation. We are alone when we read, and we enjoy the intellectual power that we have in solitude, in conversation with ourselves. This is the book-group problem restated. Book-group discussions can be disappointing and at times unbearable, in part because I do not particularly want to know what anyone else thinks about a novel. I want to know what I think about it. 

            When we read, we talk to ourselves about immediate topics of human life. We overhear ourselves discussing the ultimate concerns about what it means to be human. Literature is a catalyst that creates chain reactions and circles of thinking. I read Shakespeare’s play The Comedy of Errors, and then I read Bloom’s thoughts about Shakespeare, which refer to Proust, a novelist whose idea about the conversation of literature challenges my own and prompts me to reconsider with whom, exactly, we converse when we read.

            This is but one conversation. Like most readers, I engage in multiple conversations of literature at once, as I read novels, short stories, poems, works of criticism and other non-fiction, book reviews, and author interviews. Another recent conversation was prompted by writer Daniel Mendelsohn, who published “Unburied: Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the Lessons of Greek Tragedy” in The New Yorker in May 2013. I had read no farther than the title when I thought of Sophocles, whom Mendelsohn had thought of, too, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings when nobody would bury the body of the dead terrorist. As I read through the comments posted by other readers, the world’s longest, most thrilling conversation swirled all around me. Other readers of literature had also thought of the Greek tragedy “Antigone” in response to Tsarnaev’s unburied corpse. We engaged in the conversation of literature together, and yet each one of us retained our independence — “we remain all alone” — as we pursued the particular strand of thought that a current event and its ties to ancient literature triggered.

            Literature connects us to one another, the writers of the past and the present, and virtually every idea, possibility, and observation recorded in our collective written history. Yet, the power of the literary conversation surpasses human connections. It enables us to connect with ourselves, see ourselves, and overhear ourselves. If the Ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself” remains a noble pursuit in our times, then literature can guide us in this endeavor.

            Michael Silverblatt hosts the public radio program Bookworm, broadcast weekly since 1989 on KCRW in Santa Monica, California. My husband introduced me to Silverblatt in 2002, after the birth of our first daughter when I was suffering from sleep deprivation, isolation as a new mother, a lack of intellectual stimulation, and a limited literary life. I had little time to write and little brain capacity with which to make coherent sentences. I would strap our baby into her stroller, press the earbuds into my ears, and set out with Silverblatt and his guest writer. Within minutes, I felt a deep satisfaction and joy, as I ingested a hit of the substance that made me highest. Soon I would be nodding as I thought hard about what I love most. In Proust’s words, I received communication of Silverblatt’s thoughts and those of his guests, and I remained all alone and in conversation with myself, enjoying the intellectual power of my solitude. The irony of listening to Silverblatt’s conversations with writers was that it left me alone with my thoughts even as it made me feel less alone.

            One day as I listened to Silverblatt talk with David Foster Wallace, something new happened: I responded out loud. As I pushed the stroller along the bike trail near our house in Ojai, California, I literally joined the conversation. I replied to the host and his guest. I agreed passionately with much of what they said, yet I sometimes dared to disagree, too. The immediacy, intimacy, and intellectual stimulus of our three-way conversation saved me. I felt less alone, even as I overheard myself in ways that led to greater self-knowledge. My literary life expanded, and my life expanded, too.

            One day, there were four of us in the conversation, when Silverblatt interviewed Irish novelist Colm Toibin about his novel The Master, a fictionalized account of the life of novelist Henry James. I have a love-hate relationship with James, which made for a robust discussion (on my end, anyway). I rarely argue with Silverblatt, but that day, I shook my head at his comments a few times. Literary tradition tells me that I should revere the great prose master, but I just do not have it in me — not yet, anyway. I did not love The Portrait of a Lady, and I have not yet been able to get through The Golden Bowl or James’s other novels.

            Literature is serious business, and it is also fun. Disagreeing with Silverblatt is fun, and responding aloud to two people who are speaking through my earbuds is great fun. That is the only kind of book group for me. The fun is possible in part because there is nobody else present to dissipate (read: destroy) the conversation. I remain all alone, and this intensifies my good time. Discovering the chains is exhilarating: Richard Russo --> William Shakespeare --> Harold Bloom --> Marcel Proust was one chain, while Michael Silverblatt --> Colm Toibin --> Henry James was another. The common thread between them is of course me. I am a hybrid of Russo and Proust. I graft the two versions of the conversation — the writer-driven conversation presented by Russo and the reader-driven conversation expressed by Proust — to create an all-compassing view that The Conversation Of Literature is every writer and every reader responding to one another through the books of the past and present and the application of literature to a single human life, a person alive on the planet right now. 

             Anyone can join the conversation. Last year, when I went back to high school to take a class in literary criticism, I witnessed young readers joining in. As we approached the end of the first semester of “Interpretations of Literature” at Montpelier (Vermont) High School, my classmates’ active engagement with the books and stories that we read and with the concepts of literary criticism increased in proportion to their growing knowledge and confidence. Some appeared comfortable raising their hand to make a comment that linked the book we were reading with another book they had read, or to draw a comparison between one author and another. Others perhaps found it thrilling, but sometimes the manifestation of what thrills us remains invisible and inaudible to others. Reading is intensely private for some of us. 

            The reasons to choose literature and join the conversation are numerous, and they are vital and relevant to each of us. Literature is the story of us, and more and more in recent years, it is the story of all of us. Imbedded in literature is our shared human history. Storytelling is as old as we are. We have loved it, benefited from it, reacted to it, influenced it, contributed to it, and passed it along for thousands of years.

            Literature is also our psychology, our philosophy, our sociology, and our anthropology. It is our religion and our spirituality. Reading is expansive and universal. It takes us through time and across the world.

            Yet, it is also personal and private. I sit and read alone, and as I enter a novel, I enter another world and I enter myself. The book sends words and ideas to me, and I send my thoughts and responses back. When we read, we make connections. We also make revelations. We learn not only who we are, but we also learn who others are. We enter the minds and souls of others. Peering intimately into lives vastly different from our own teaches us openness and empathy. Real life rarely shows us the inside of another human mind or heart in the way that literature can. Stories bring us as close as possible to the essence of what it is to be human. The best literature distills real life to its purest form. One side effect is companionship. When I read, I feel less alone. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

            Literature can show us how to live. The opportunity is riveting, and the stakes are high. Literature takes us into the deepest, strangest, darkest, brightest, most daring, and most exciting unknown and unexplored areas of human life. Reading can show you parts of yourself that you never before saw and perhaps never wanted to see. Literature can change how you think, which is to say it can change who you are.

            Reading is dangerous. It will not leave you the same, and who you will emerge as at the other end is unpredictable. Turgenev made me lose hope, and Nietzsche made me lose my mind. Dostoevsky made me feel wicked, and Vonnegut made me feel daring. Cervantes made me laugh in a wild and wondrous way that I had never laughed before, and Dickens made me weep for reasons beyond reason. Hopelessness and temporary insanity, wickedness and daringness, laughter and tears all open new realms of life for us. George Eliot showed me Jews, Zadie Smith showed me Londoners, Faulkner showed me Southerners, and Adam Johnson showed me North Koreans. The Greeks showed me the human mind and thus myself, despite the fact that their society was even more limiting than ours, with education and power for very few, for the wealthy, white, educated, slave-owning, governing men of the day. Still, I love them, even as I roll my eyes at Homer’s battle scenes, even as I want to grab Seneca by the shoulders and scream, “Try being a mother for one day, you uppity moron!” 

            For years, I have echoed other passionate readers in humbly asserting that literature does not make us better people. We may be wrong. A study by social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, published in the journal Science, found that after reading literary fiction, people exhibited more empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, according to a report in The New York Times. The psychologists concluded that because literary fiction leaves more to the imagination, it encourages readers “to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity,” the Times article said. Even if reading literature does not make me a better person, it makes me more myself. It makes me love my life more. It makes me feel more alive, more connected, and more aware of what matters most.   

            The time to join the conversation is now. Those already in the conversation have taken to defending it lately. Week after week, new treatises on the value of literature appear from critics, scholars, teachers, writers, readers, decision-makers, and leaders. Literary critic Sam Anderson, formerly at New York magazine and now critic at large at The New York Times Magazine, offered his public testimony to the glory of literature:

            “Why, then, do we read? There’s something Buddhist about literary reading, as I understand it – you drop yourself into a little pocket of silence and peace and allow magical things to happen to your consciousness. I read, on the most basic level, because it makes me happy. It calms my brain down. My wife and I sometimes refer to this as ‘textual healing’: if I’m in a wretched mood, feeling oppressed by the world, I can go off with a book for an hour and suddenly become myself again. This practice, if you’re receptive to it, can come to define your life – can come in fact to seem like the very definition of a rich life.”

            Associate English Professor Evan Gottlieb from Oregon State University defended literature and the teaching of it to undergraduates in The Huffington Post. His starting point is recent public debate about the value of studying the humanities and literature. College majors that are seen as practical, such as business, are thriving, while the humanities are “at best holding steady,” Gottlieb writes. He lists the traditional reasons that the humanities and literature are valued: close reading, coherent writing, public speaking, and critical thinking. He also confesses his ambivalence about the old argument that reading makes one a better person. “I do think that reading—especially reading fictional narratives, whether War and Peace or Watchmen—offers interpretive challenges and pleasures that cannot be found easily elsewhere,” Gottlieb writes. In the end, his only conclusion is that he is grateful at the start of a new academic year for another chance to engage with college students in the conversation of literature, “the acts of reading, writing, and interpreting that still make up the core activities of the humanities—and, arguably, of humanity as a whole.”

            There are real reasons that participants in the world’s longest, most thrilling conversation are provoked to defend literature. The gadgets and gizmos, technology and social media, that are making life more convenient, efficient, and drenched in information than ever before are competing with the more demanding artistic forms of literary novels and poetry and threatening the human conditions required to engage with them: silence, solitude, and concentration.

            There is also the debate on curriculum and the increasingly accepted notion that teachers at all levels must put aside Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens in favor of more accessible books. According to this way of thinking, when teachers struggle to engage non-readers with books, reading anything is better than reading nothing. In some classrooms, there is no assigned reading. Students choose their own books. I cannot comment on this with any expertise because I am not an educator, but I can say that it makes me very nervous.

            A local middle-school English teacher whom I admire told me, “We need to meet kids where they are.” Meet them where they are, perhaps, but be sure to take them to the highest places that the human mind can go.

            Take them, in the end, to literature.

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