Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Aristotle and C. S. Lewis

If you are a reader of books (not just blogs), these days you are apparently in the minority. Some alarming statistics I've run into on various web sites claim that:
  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
    girl reading a book
    Today's column by Fr. James Schall on The Catholic Thing suggests that one reason young people don't read much any more is that they are tethered to their cell phones, which constantly demand their attention, making it impossible (unlikely, at least) for them to devote themselves to reading or sustain reflection -- these days, college students hit the beach with their "smart phones," not paperback novels. Fr. Schall goes on to comment that he is not encouraged by the current fad for "electronic books" that can be read off of computer and smartphone screens, a view that I share. I'll let you read for yourself his reasoning. (What do you mean, you don't read The Catholic Thing? Why on earth not? They publish a new and thought-provoking essay each day, by an impressive variety of excellent Catholic thinkers.)

    Schall mentions all this as a lead-up to his consideration of a question that I think is an important one: Does it matter if we read fiction? (Notice, he does not insist that it be "important literature" or "timeless classics," just "fiction," including poetry.) I think the answer is, "Absolutely, yes!" I know plenty of people who think of themselves as "readers," but proudly proclaim, "Oh, I only read non-fiction," as if that were a virtue. On the contrary, I can't help but think of it as a character defect, revealing an undeveloped moral imagination. Why? Well, Aristotle gave an answer that I think is as valid today as it was nearly 2,400 years ago, in his Poetics. Aristotle, of course, was a philosopher, not a poet, but he believed in the ethical value of poetry (by which he meant what we mean by "literature" -- in his day, all "fiction" was written in poetic verse). Comparing poetry ("fiction") to history ("nonfiction"), he says:
    It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen -- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims ... (Poetics IX)
    So it looks like Aristotle would not have been too impressed by those people who proudly proclaim that they read only "nonfiction." 

    C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Canto edition
    But, one might ask, was Aristotle right in claiming that "poetry" is a "high and philosophical thing"? And if so, why? I would say yes, if we recognize that, while his use of the term "poetry" would include literary fiction generally, it probably would not extend to pulp fiction (the sort of mass-produced schlock that keeps many booksellers in business, for which there was no analogue in Aristotle's day). I think that Aristotle had in mind something more like what C. S. Lewis, in his An Experiment in Criticism, classified as "good books." Lewis proposed that we define "good books" not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A "good" book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight. Good books provoke good reading, taking us out of ourselves while we read and returning us to ourselves, at the end of our reading, somehow enlarged:
    One of the things we feel after reading a great work is "I have got out." Or from another point of view, "I have got in"; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside. ... We therefore delight to enter into other men's beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue.  And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.
    This is not to say that to say, of course, that a good book cannot be read badly; rather, the important distinction is that good books "permit" a reading that enlarges the reader, whereas bad books make such reading impossible. The good book meets Aristotle's criterion of being "philosophical"because it allows us to gain new insight into some truth about the human condition, the way of the world, etc.

    None of this is to say, however, that every work of fiction we read should be "good" (using Lewis's terminology) or "philosophical" (using Aristotle's), any more than every bite we eat has to be "healthy" or "nutritious." If we want to carry this food analogy a little further, however, we would have to acknowledge that, much as a complete lack of appetite for food indicates some underlying illness, and prolonged fasting will, in the end, prove deadly, in a similar way, it is not healthy for an otherwise civilized person never to read a book, or to regard reading (as too many students do!) as simply a necessary evil that must be performed to survive, a bitter medicine that must be swallowed. Avid readers are baffled by people who never read, in much the same was as people who delight in healthy, delicious, well-prepared food are baffled by anorexics, or those who never eat anything but tasteless processed junk.

    Matthias Stom,  Young Man Reading by Candlelight
    Matthias Stom, 
    Young Man Reading by Candlelight
    The fact that even college-educated adults quit reading books as soon as they are able suggests that our schools and colleges do a very poor job of teaching the delight of reading tales well told, and that many parents set a bad example by never reading books themselves. What can or should be done about that is a separate question, and outside the scope of this blog. The delight and benefits of reading, however is a topic that I'd like to pursue further, so I'll undoubtedly return to the question of why reading fiction is good for you.