I’m sure it has been noted before, but Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid (2007) makes a persuasive defense of literary instruction. The goal, she writes, is to transform fluent readers into expert readers:
If a common letter pattern or a word like “bear” appears to an expert reader, it will trigger its own network, rather than individually activating the large number of unrelated individual cells responsible for the lines, diagonals, and circles within its letters. This operating principle is the working example of the biological maxim “Cells that fire together stay together,” and is the brain’s basic tool for creating ever larger circuits that connect cell assemblies into a system of networks distributed across the entire brain. (146.)
The more networks the reader has, the more quickly s/he can read a text. More importantly, synaptic networks make the reading process more efficient, saving brain space for higher-order intellectual work—inference, analysis, critical evaluation, and the other skills we are desperate to teach our students and to practice ourselves.
If the goal is to make expert readers, literature has two advantages over other sources—online or professional, say. First, literary writing is with few exceptions richer in analytical and inferential material than other kinds of writing. Second, literary writing promotes sympathetic reading in a way that other kinds of writing often cannot.
Those two advantages are topics Wolf discusses, but there is a third that I think her review implies: literary writing rewards and often requires rereading, which I would assume would make a reader more expert.
I can’t help but wonder if we should use some of those valuable hours at the beginning of an intro lit course reviewing the science of reading. If that class is the last literature course a student ever takes, oughtn’t it make a strong case for the medical and ethical value of reading?
In a conversation with a friend about Lolita, an interesting problem arose. This is the cover of the second Vintage International edition of the book:
In the upper left corner is the blurb “The only convincing love story of our Century” —Vanity Fair. You can imagine why this characterization could be a problem. I have never had the great luck to teach Lolita in a course, but just by looking at this cover I can imagine conversations in intro lit classrooms across the country centering on this practically anonymous quotation.
So I decided to track the source down.
I’m amused that on a blog devoted to the arcana of academe the least popular post is that containing musings on Tolstoy and his political orientation.
To celebrate this unpopularity, here is a sequence of brief excerpts from Tolstoy’s masterful riff on beehives:
In the hot rays of the noonday sun, the bees hover just as merrily around a queenless hive as around the other living hives; from afar it has the same smell of honey; bees fly in and out of it in the same way. But we need only take a closer look at it to realize that there is no longer any life in this hive. The bees do not fly in the same way as in a living hive, the smell is not the same, it is not the same sound that strikes the beekeeper’s ear. To the beekeeper’s tapping on the wall of an ailing hive, instead of the former instantaneous, concerted response, the hissing of tens of thousands of bees, menacingly tucking their behinds under and producing this vital, airy sound by the rapid beating of their wings, there comes in response a scattered buzzing that resonates at various points of the empty hive. [. . .]
The beekeeper opens the upper chamber and examines the superhive. Instead of solid rows of bees covering all the spaces between the combs and warming the brood, he sees the artful, complex workmanship of the combs, but no longer in the virginal form they used to have. Everything is neglected and dirty. [. . .]
So Moscow was empty when Napoleon, weary, restless, and scowling, paced back and forth the Kamerkollezhsky rampart, awaiting what to his mind was a necessary, though external, observance of propriety—a deputation. (874-5.)
If that doesn’t make you want to set aside April and May to read this thing, nothing will.
A quick bee-related update: In the course of Googling around last night I stumbled on a blog kept by students in the Big Book class at Head-Royce in Oakland who are spending the first part of this semester working their way through W&P. (RSmith has crafted a particularly thoughtful post reading the beehive simile as a Virgilian allusion.)