Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I'm not so sure ...

... I entirely agree with what Chad Post says in Entertainment Weekly vs. Oprah at Words Without Borders:

Great literature isn’t meant to heal. Great literature doesn’t change your life, or make you a better person, or send a message. Great literature is beautiful. It’s a work of art, which is the point. If you’re looking for something else, something to fix your life, check out Are You Fired Up?

If great literature is beautiful it may well change your life -- because great beauty can move you to the depths of your being. Why place limits on the effect beauty may have. I have just finished reading -- and writing about -- Anthony Briggs's new translation of War and Peace. I found it profoundly affecting. It made me look at the world and life differently. I don't think many will deny that War and Peace is an example of great literature. But what does it mean to call it beautiful? Throughout the book Tolstoy is clearly trying to get across to his readers something besides aesthetic contemplation. He is very much concerned about how human beings live their lives. And he makes the problems and passions of living palpable. To dismiss all that, it seems to me, is to trivialize the book. Is beauty nothing more than a harmonious arrangement of carefully selected details? Or does it too have a moral dimension? I am the person I am to a large extent because of the books I have read.


  1. I think what you're describing is a by-product of having read the book. I'm willing to bet you didn't start it with the intention of becoming a better person. It was your love of literature that led you to it.

    I think people who expect books to do something for them lack the sense of play that's at the heart of literature.

  2. There seem to me to be some interesting distinctions to be made here. The house of art has many mansions. I didn't expect War and Peace to be a light, diverting entertainment. By that I mean no slight to light, diverting entertainments, which require skill and insight to achieve their effects, too. Oddly, I don't believe I've ever read a self-help book. But I have read works designed for edification -- Kierkegaard, for instance, who goes about his task very artistically. Tomorrow I plan to blog a bit about Oscar Wilde -- because over the weekend my wife and I went to see A Good Woman, the new screen adaptation of Lady Windermere's fan, and I was struck by how sensitive Wilde was to the beauty of goodness. I found the film quite edifying (though I find most sermons tedious).

  3. I understand your point and that of the article. Personally I have never read a book on Oprah's book club 'cause that's just not my kind of reading. Even in the Christian world a lot of literature is meant to be inspirational, I find when I'm looking for inspiration I don't want to borrow from someone else's experience. I want my to that end I read the Bible for inspiration.

    While , my dear estimable Frank reads War and Peace for enjoyment (I used it as a doorstop...God bless your diligence Frank) I read purely for entertainment type of enjoyment...Cussler, DeMille, Clancy, Alton Gansky, Chris Well, Brandilynn name a few!

    I don't think you classify this as a love of literature...just a love of the tangible senses of reading!

  4. I agree with Frank on this. one can hardly call the edifying aspects of reading a by-product.

    The Line of Beauty as a work is aesthetically very pleasing, but it would have hardly appealed to me as a reader if it did not speak to me at a personal level. All my great books have opened up new vistas in the way of possible lifestyles and even sentiments.

    It's the old Freudian take on reading. We read not so that we learn but for validating that which we already knew and perhaps even held sacred on a personal front.

  5. Perhaps you can't call it a by-product, but I feel as BOTH aspects are important. A book that sets out to edify without being well-written is not a good book. A book that focuses only on the aesthetics of language without appealing to deeper aspects of human nature (or something similar) also fails to become great literature. The article doesn't state it clearly enough, perhaps, but I think his point is that great literature isn't supposed to be a self-help book. He only says that great literature is beautiful, but as you've described, beauty is complicated and has great effect on people. So if he says "it's a work of art, which is the point," it sounds to me like he's admitting to all the powerful effects that a "work of art" has.

    Sorry for being a complete stranger and still rambling away on such an old post, but I was looking for Tolstoy translation recommendations and stumbled on your blog... :)