I will now type a very adult sentence: I actually read something great in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal. A feature — “Who Ruined the Humanities?”, which is surprisingly un-WSJ and available without a pay wall here — touches on the meaninglessness of collegiate literary studies. Now the main takeaway from this whole screed is that degrees in the humanities have tailed in popularity among college students over the years, which isn’t earth-shattering news. The secondary point that author Lee Seigel makes here is what grabbed hold of me: the literary classics are intended to be enjoyed outside the walls of academia, to be interpreted and internalized in one’s own free time.
Literary art’s sudden, startling truth and beauty make us feel, in the most solitary part of us, that we are not alone, and that there are meanings that cannot be bought, sold or traded, that do not decay and die. This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that. Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.
I agree, as Siegel puts it rather vaguely, that high school students should be “intimately introduced” to literature (however that’s done) rather than beat over the head with a copy of “Beowulf”. Truth is, the title choices — the ones I can remember, “Scarlett Letter” (yawn) “Silas Marner” (puke) — were so obviously the choices of long dead, sweatered, moth-ball scented people, who succeeded only in equipping my teenage, shit-brained self with evidence to prove that everything adults were reading was fucking dreadful. So, instead, I turned on “Saved By the Bell” and watched the Jesse’s-Wicked-Step-Brother-Shows-Up-From-NYC-And-Dismantles-Mr.Belding’s-New-Car episode on WPIX for the 88th time.
But then, in my senior year, my English teacher — a dude everyone thought was cool — introduced around four books to be read by the class during the semester. One of them was Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, which I had only heard of up to that point. I still have my copy from that very class — Sorry, Olean High School — and read it every couple of years. In college, enrolled in a mindless introductory course that all freshmen openly despised, I came across an excerpt in our daily readings from the coursebook. It was a chapter from Don Delillo’s “White Noise”, a book that changed the way I thought about writing and the reading experience. It’s the book that, in a small way, ultimately changed my life.
All that said, this article isn’t free of mistakes, though: Siegel has to go ruin it with a closing graph referencing some anecdote from “Moby Dick”, quite possibly responsible for ruining countless years of reading for 85 percent of high-school graduates. Cram it, Melville.