Gladly Beyond: A Place for Literature

The e.e. cummings poem that begins, “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond/any experience,your eyes have their silence” and ends “nobody,not even the rain, has such small hands” is unabashedly about love: The poem figures prominently in Woody Allen’s film Hannah and Her Sisters and was swapped between lovers in my college dorm. The idea of finding the one person whose looks can “unclose” you seduces anyone capable of undressing in the throes of a soul-mates fever dream.

Nonetheless, the lines of this poem – which seem so tenderly meant for a lover – immediately sprang to mind when, preparing for the beginning of the semester last week, I thought about how to articulate my love of literature to my new students. Reading: so much like the unfolding between cummings’ lovers, only exponentially more promiscuous. Every work of literature opens its own universe. I have only one bricks-and-mortar life, but literature gives me thousands of consciousnesses in hundreds of times and places. Each book uncloses me, transports me out of myself and into lives that are absolutely, impossibly not my own.

When I talked to my students that first day, I shared the reasons for my passion for literature and saw that my students appreciated my love of my subject but did not share it. Seeing their skepticism, I dutifully trotted out the pragmatic reasons for careful, thoughtful reading and how they might apply to the career aspirations of the students in the class, but now I regret falling back on salesmanship.

Literature, it seems to me, is the antithesis of the agenda embedded in public discourse, of social networking and Web 2.0, of everything on demand 24/7. At least in the United States, we live in an age that exalts the individual; we devote more and more of our ingenuity towards customizing our own experiences – in other words, to limiting awareness to what we have already imagined and requested. Even in education, we judge success through measurable outcomes and whether college has conferred skills that mean something in “the real world.” On our separate phones and laptops, all password protected, we can choose the apps we want, the news sources whose views we espouse, and the people who share our own interests.

I think about the trouble some students have with reading – in 2011, only half of students had ACT reading scores predictive of college readiness – and I think that at least part of the problem is that reading demands that we enter someone else’s consciousness, that we desire to understand what is inaccessible to us and learn to decipher it. The hyperlinked Web 2.0 world, by contrast, privileges the self over the other and rewards predictability, even customizing ads and offers based on a user’s browsing history. Rather than the practice of reading being an act of seeking, in the hyperlinked world it becomes an act of receiving, as Netflix puts it, “More like this.”

Literature, on the other hand, entices us from our own separate worlds into someone else’s, “whose texture/compels me with the color of its countries.” Reading, at its best, keeps us from emotional and intellectual celibacy. It gives us thousands of eyes, all unclosed, and, as we turn the pages of a book, allows us to transcend our own small hands.