Reading Like Your Life Depends On It

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At a dinner party last month, a biomedical engineer asked me a rude question. He was not trying to be rude. He was drunk. Informed that I am an English professor, he responded, "Why?" He explained that his mission in life is to save lives. Mine is to say clever things about dead writers. Prodded by his wife’s grimace, he backtracked a bit and reassured me that Shakespeare is "obviously important." Praising Shakespeare is how the world apologizes for its lack of interest in literature. Those of us who have devoted our lives to literature are dogged by this perpetual questioning of the worth of our work.

We live in an Information Age. New technologies and insurgent media have democratized the dissemination of knowledge. Children type their names before they write them. We devour a daily buffet of words. The average American reads and writes more today than at any time in our history—even if it’s TMZ we read and emoticon-peppered e-mails we write. We are all authors now. Sarah Palin has just written a book. Texting while driving has become a national problem. Last week I passed a young couple holding hands. With their free hands, they were texting. Fifteen years ago, bored students stared out classroom windows at squirrels. The window has become a laptop, and the squirrel, Facebook. The problem today is not illiteracy. It is hyper-literacy. We have no time for literature.

Fiction sales have plummeted. Poetry has become a fetish. Parents are terrified their children will become playwrights; it means they will never move out. The exodus of undergraduates from the humanities to occupational majors—coupled with the devaluation of literature and art in our society—has driven certain humanist disciplines to the brink of extinction. From the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, the number of English majors in the United States dwindled from 64,000 to 34,000. Despite the fact that more students across the country are attending college than ever before, less than four percent of them in 2004 chose to major in English, a number that has declined each subsequent year. In this era of rapid thumb-typing, the act of reading literature feels metabolically unnatural. It forces our sprinting brains to slow to a crawl.

Over the last three decades, literary scholars have utterly failed literature. Our sales pitch has worn thin. To an increasing number of students, our claims that literature refines the mind, makes one a more interesting and intellectually supple person, sound pretentious, or worse, therapeutic. The Arnoldian notion that culture elevates us, makes us empathetic and sensitive, is just not true. Don’t believe me? You should hear English professors discuss each other’s work! Students want to be empowered by knowledge, not refined or made precious by it. The age of the snob has passed. There will always be a core constituency of sweet-tempered undergraduates who find literature intrinsically fascinating, just as there will always be devotees of Wagner, bonsai, and Lithuanian folk dances. We will dote on this shrinking brood, praise them for savoring Auden while their peers gorge on "Glee." But let’s not shake our fists at the thumb-typers. It would be a mistake to circle the nerd wagons.


In truth, literature is perfectly positioned for a comeback. In a society comprised of compulsive writers and readers, of empty-calorie text, the study of artful language—of words that truly matter—is more necessary now than ever. If you cannot dance atop the tsunami of signifiers heading your way, it will crush you. Learn to breathe language, or else choke on it. If you cannot control it, it will control you. Your words will die on your lips; your thoughts will turn to dust. Taming unruly syllables—bending signification to suit your needs, understanding that everything is language, matrices of metaphor, of which you are a product—is a prerequisite for survival and success in the 21st century. Which will it be: the red pill or the blue one? No biomedical engineer could manufacture these pills.

What is literature, in the end, but the art of rendering uncanny one’s own language, of not taking words for granted, of watching language undulate in slow motion through space? Nietzsche understood this. The quotidian life of any language ("What’s up?" "Nice weather!" "LOL") is naturally disenchanting. 99.99 percent of the words we speak show no trace of life. Clichés trickle from our zombie mouths. We speak a lot and say little. Literature re-enchants language; it fills its lungs with gasps. What are the pangs induced by good poetry but a visceral realization of having taken our friend language for granted, of having broken its heart? Literature teaches us to see the words we live with as though for the first time. Literature shakes us from our sleepwalker’s daze. It is like discovering that your roommate of many years is not only hot, but also has loved you this whole time. Study literature. Study it like your life depends upon it—because, in this wordy young century, it does.


Matthew B. Kaiser is an associate professor of English at Harvard University.