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[Perhaps] reading Kafka or Woolf or Naipaul does make you a better, more empathic person. (Though what about your hardline literary misanthropes, by the way — your Bernhards, your Houellebecqs, your Célines? Do we gain anything in moral aptitude by reading these dreadful old bastards, and, if we don’t, is doing so somehow less worthy of our time?) But even if it didn’t, even if reading made you a worse person … reading would be no less vital an activity. I don’t know whether all those boxes full of books have made me any kind of better person; I don’t know whether they’ve made me kinder and more perceptive, or whether they’ve made me more introspective and detached and self-absorbed. Most likely it’s some combination of all these characteristics, perhaps canceling each other out. But I do know that I wouldn’t want to be without those books or my having read them, and that their importance to me is mostly unrelated to any power they might have to make me a more considerate person.

UD said something similar, a few weeks back, to what Mark O’Connell says. (“Reading novels like Lolita and The Tropic of Cancer and The Elementary Particles will have God knows what impact on your personal morality and your engagement as a citizen. These are funny, nihilistic, cynical works, and I’d hate to have to be the one to determine their moral or character-building potential. As Georg Lukacs long ago pointed out about Kafka – and what serious education in the humanities is without Kafka? – great writers of our time have a tendency to maunder on inconclusively about the hopelessly alienated consciousness; or they sketch a world with very little collective action in it… Writers like Don DeLillo, America’s greatest living novelist, routinely get called bad citizens.”) O’Connell’s responding to the same thing UD was – yet another report or study proving scientifically that reading serious literature makes you a better person. There’s always another such study coming down the pike, and they’re all silly things, attracting yet sillier self-aggrandizing commentary from teachers and writers.

August Kleinzahler points out that “Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.” The same is true – maybe even truer – of serious non-poetic literature. Reading this sort of stuff is, as O’Connell writes, an intense and “vital” experience. Its language tends to excite us in rather obscure ways; its disclosure of usually hidden human depths may thrill us. Perhaps we want to say that great literature tends to reconcile us to the truths of our shared condition. But force feeding yourself George Eliot because you want to be a more empathetic person will only make you hate George Eliot.

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2 Responses to “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”

  1. Mr Punch Says:

    I’m interested that O’Connell uses Naipaul as an example of someone who’s not a “literary misanthrope.”

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Mr Punch: I saw that too! Very weird. No one’s more misanthropic than Naipaul…

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