In a recent article posted to both his blog and The New Republic, University of Chicago professor Jerry A. Coyne finds himself reluctantly siding with conservatives over the proposed use of “trigger warnings” in literature classes. Life is triggering he says, and literature prepares you for that.
Thank heavens we have a science professor to tell us how to teach literature, right?
Or, rather, what to teach (the canon, as well as newly canonical, formerly marginalized women, blacks, LGBT individuals, etc.). The how, though, is somewhat lacking. Coyne tells us that literature is meant to challenge us and expand our minds, which sounds excellent, right up until the moment you realize he doesn’t really mean anything by that. Continue reading
Generally speaking, I’m wary of attempts to defend literature (or the humanities generally) on utilitarian grounds. It’s not that I don’t think studying literature can be useful; I think—naively, maybe, but honestly—that it can be transformative for both the individual and for society at large. That said, I would still argue that studying it is worthwhile even if it weren’t, strictly speaking, useful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pleasure or even escapism, and frankly, the entire idea that the primary goal of education is utility strikes me as puritanical (sometimes literally—the increasing pressure to make education wholly vocational feels deeply intertwined with the Protestant work ethic). Continue reading
Merry Christmas! In honor of the brazen (if unusually honest) Western Union commercial proclaiming money “king” this holiday season, let’s talk about money.
If someone asked me to name a novel that’s largely about money, my first thought would probably be Our Mutual Friend. According to Thomas Piketty—economist and author of the wildly popular Capital in the Twenty-First Century—that’s not just because I’ve read too much Victorian fiction. As a recent Slate article helpfully notes for those of us who just can’t stomach 700 pages of economics, even for a good cause, Piketty argues that in the early 20th century, novels became increasingly less interested in money as money itself ceased to be a “stable reference point” following massive inflation and a temporary reduction in wealth inequality. If I might risk paraphrasing Slate’s paraphrase (always a dangerous proposition): Earlier references to money in literature were a way of ordering the world in knowable ways, so when money itself became a slipperier signifier, it ceased to have the same value (har har) for authors. Continue reading
The list of writers whose work achieved widespread recognition only posthumously is impressive: Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Zora Neale Hurston, to name a few. There’s a piquant poignancy to stories such as these; events may have conspired against these authors while they were alive, but now, at least, we appreciate their genius—a genius, moreover, that continues to resonate decades and even centuries later.
The Future Library project—the brainchild of artist Katie Patterson—changes the formula entirely. Continue reading