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Why Criticism Matters January 21, 2018

Posted by andrewfieldlibrarian in Uncategorized.
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I love reading book and movie reviews.  Sometimes I see a movie, or read a book, and I’m completely bowled over by it.  I am moved to my very foundation, my core, I am shaken…but I don’t know exactly why sometimes, and sometimes I lack the ability to put into words just why exactly I’ve been so touched (or so disappointed, for that matter).  That’s why I love reading book and movie reviews of films and books I’ve just experienced – they put into words, in an often artful, intelligent, and helpful way, just what I’ve been struggling to say or express.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our great American writers and thinkers, wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”  I’ve always loved that quote – what a great way of describing the way in which artists and writers and thinkers help us to say what we want to say – but I think the quote also applies to book and movie reviewers, (even if they’re not exactly a work of genius!).  We see a movie, we like it, we don’t know why, we read a movie review, and suddenly our own feelings and thoughts come back to us “with a certain alienated majesty.”  It’s a great, wonderful feeling.

I’m writing about book and movie reviews, but what I really wanted to talk about in this blog post is literary criticism, and let me explain why.  In the same way in which a book review deepens our appreciation of something, (or for that matter deepens our understanding of why we didn’t like something), literary criticism can do the same thing, and often does.  In a sense, we can think of a work of literary criticism as an extended treatment of something we care about, by someone who also cares an inordinate amount about this thing, and also most likely knows and has thought a great deal about this thing.  When you read a book and really enjoy it, but don’t understand as much as you’d like about why you enjoyed it, finding a work of literary criticism that talks about that book can be edifying.  But more than that – it can really deepen your understanding of the work, it can augment what you were intuiting but not exactly saying, and it can therefore extend your appreciation of the work to deeper levels.  (It can also, it should be said, question your own beliefs about the object, and make you think anew about the work in question.)

As I talked about in my last blog post about Tolstoy, I finished one of Tolstoy’s novels, Anna Karenina, and loved every page.  But I left with some unanswered questions.  How was I to think about Anna, her fate, her character, her life?  Or for that matter, what was I to make of Stiva Oblonsky, or Levin, or Kitty?  These characters made a deep impression on me – I felt like I really got to know them, in a way that real life makes it hard to do – but in a way what I felt after finishing the novel was that I wanted to know more.  The book had finished, but I wasn’t finished with the book.  I wondered about how Tolstoy himself intended for us to think and feel about his characters.  I wanted my understanding to be enriched and made more complex.  So for that reason, I found a book through CLEVNET called Anna Karenina in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely by Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Arts and Humanities and Slavic Languages at Northwestern University.

And I haven’t been disappointed.  I’m about sixty pages into the book, and can already say that Morson has made me rethink my original take on Anna Karenina.  He makes a very compelling and convincing argument, for example, that one character in particular embodies evil for Tolstoy – an argument that has changed the way I thought about the character, who is mostly a good-natured socialite who everyone in the novel seems to like.  Now I’m reading a chapter about Anna – the character I was most curious about learning more – and am coming to terms with a lot of traditional interpretations of her character, as well as Morson’s more heterodox interpretation.  It has been such a thrilling experience!  It feels like this perennially interesting book club or conversation, where I am able to converse and commune with an expert on something we both share and care about and even love.

That’s what good criticism can do (and not just for books, of course, but movies, art, television, theater, dance, music, etc.).  It enables there to be a deep conversation about a shared object that elicits strong feelings for those involved.  It shows us new angles, new directions in our thought, new perceptions that we hadn’t considered and wouldn’t have considered had we not found the work of criticism.  And although much criticism, at least for my taste, can be way too abstruse and theoretical, that is not true for all criticism, not in the least.  So let me end by encouraging you, reader, to find a piece of criticism that helps you to understand a work on a deeper level.  A good place to start is the New Yorker, which has three good film critics (David Denby, Anthony Lane, and Richard Brody), as well as a stellar book critic named James Wood and a wonderful theater critic named Hilton Als.  (They also have great music and art critics.)  The New York Times also has excellent film critics, as does the Los Angeles Times.  Each critic has their own taste, and they go out of their way to make an argument, to start a conversation, to convince you that their interpretation is right.  You might agree or disagree with them, but you should come away with an enriched understanding of the work in question, and maybe even a deeper appreciation of life itself.

 

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Why Read the Classics (Or, Why the Classics Are Not Boring!) January 19, 2018

Posted by andrewfieldlibrarian in Uncategorized.
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Tolstoy

In this blog post, I want to argue that the classics are not just immense tomes that accrue dust on the shelf of the library or a bookshelf, but are instead living, breathing documents that reflect back to us our humanity.  I’m starting with this lofty statement, because recently I have become obsessed with the 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was born in 1828 and died in 1910.  Tolstoy was an outsized personality, and he was not only a great novelist but also, following a moral crisis in his forties, a Christian anarchist and pacifist.

But although I find Tolstoy’s detours into anarchism, Christianity and pacifism interesting (his advocacy of non-violent resistance was a great influence on Gandhi), I have to say that it is his novels that really excite me.  Anna Karenina, for example, which I finished about a month ago, was this really amazing exploration of one woman in Russian society who bucked the norms (she was a married woman who fell in love with another man) and then had to face the tragic consequences.  There were scenes in that novel that felt so true to life – it was such a remarkable and uncanny reading experience.  (Isaac Babel, another famous Russian writer, once wrote that “If the world could write itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”)

One of the best things about the book was the way the characters changed and aged.  I think characters changing is one of the hardest things to pull off in a novel, because the novelist really needs to give a fine-grained and textured evocation of the interior lives of the characters in order for us to fully believe in the changes they undergo.  They also must know their characters so fully and deeply to really convey how they change.  In other words, he or she must be able to see into the minds and hearts of other fictional people – to be a very deep psychologist.  I thought Tolstoy was so good at doing just that, and for that reason his characters felt so utterly real, and I really cared about them.  In the fate of Anna, we could see our own foibles and passions reflected.

There is a scene near the end of the novel, where Anna is riding on a train.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it is a very tumultuous moment and time in her life, and Tolstoy gives us Anna’s inner monologue – the kind of scattered, fragmented thoughts that populate her mind as she looks out the train window and melds her inner world with the world she sees.  It is so well done – we feel like we are actually privy to another person’s thoughts, and the thoughts feel so real, so like our own thinking, that it is impossible not to empathize with Anna’s state of mind.  The novel reflects back to us our own humanity – it allows us to see our own selves more capaciously – and at the same allows us to empathize deeply with Anna.  It is truly a heart-wrenching moment.

And that’s the thing – Anna Karenina is a classic.  But this does not mean a big book that no one reads anymore, or shouldn’t read anymore!   Instead, it is this very profound, wonderful, fresh and moving story about families and individuals, set against a vast panorama of Russian society in the 19th century.  That’s one of the things I’ve learned from reading Anna Karenina, and now War and Peace, which I’ve read about half of – the classics are classics because they are fabulous!!!  They are timeless snapshots of fictive life, and they demand to be read.  They can be challenging and fun at the same time, but they are not just boring books that no one reads anymore.  Instead, they are deep explorations of what it means to be human, to be thinking and feeling beings, with crises, problems, and dreams.

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