The Literary Gymnasium   Leave a comment

It must have been about three or four years ago, when I was still living in central New Jersey, when this incident occurred. I was standing on piece of gym equipment, one of those assisted pull-up machines, waiting between sets for my muscles to recover before I strained my arms and shoulders and back again, when I heard a voice directly behind me. It was the one of the personal trainers, a youngish guy with a thick Jersey accent who probably made decent (but not great) money from the Sisyphean task of showing middle-aged women how to use the Nautilus machines.

“We had to read The Great Gatsby in my senior year of high school,” he was saying to his client, “and I didn’t understand the point of it at all. It made absolutely no sense to me. Thankfully I’ll never have to read another novel again.”

Since he was standing right behind me, I was momentarily tempted to turn around and tell him that I was a professor of English literature, before thinking better of it – realizing that I could only come across as intrusive and annoying in this context – and hoisting myself back up onto the pull-up machine. As he moved on, I kept thinking about what he had said, in particular the unintended irony of his choosing The Great Gatsby, the classic American novel about the failures of self-improvement, as his particular example.

Further chewing the trainer’s words over in my mind, however, I began to think: in a culture where stories (books, movies, television) are consumed primarily for the easy pleasure of their entertainment value, is it any wonder that this trainer had difficulty seeing the point of reading a complex work of literature? Raised in this environment, we are quick to dismiss what we don’t immediately understand as being uninteresting and valueless.

What if, I thought to myself, one were to approach the gym with the same mindset. Imagine, let’s say, you were a trainer who took on a football player as a client, a football player who had never been to a gym in his life, and had no idea what it was for. You put the footballer through his paces, and then send him home.

That evening, the footballer’s girlfriend asks him over dinner: “So, how was the training session at the gym? What was it like?” To which he replies: “I didn’t understand the point of it at all. It made absolutely no sense to me.  First, I had to run for half an hour on a treadmill – absolutely pointless, running on the same spot over and over. Then, even more stupidly, the trainer made me pick up a series of heavy objects and then put them down again. I can’t see any connection between these absolutely pointless activities and improving my football skills. Thankfully I’ll never to have to do another workout again.”

Why does the footballer’s response sound absurd? Because we understand that working out in a gym is a necessary supplement to a successful football career. It builds a foundation of fitness and strength on which specific skills can then be built and then sharpened. No footballer today would question why the apparently “pointless” tasks performed in the gym are necessary to his game.

Yet, when it comes to literature (and the humanities more broadly), this is precisely the kind of sound logic that is dismissed by today’s culture. People never learn what the value of literature is, and so they dismiss it as an ornament rather than an intellectual foundation on which specific skills can be built.

Let’s be clear: literature can never be a substitute for real-world experience, any more than football training drills are a viable substitute for on-field experience. But if we understand its uses and purposes, literature can be a powerful tool for developing the basic skills for forming a successful character, a kind of gymnasium for the mind.

As I stepped off the assisted pull-up machine, having mentally sketched out the basics of this defense of literature, there was one thing that still bothered me. While I’ve read The Great Gatsby three times, taught it twice, and I acknowledge its canonical status, I too don’t really understand all the fuss about that particular novel. I mean, it’s good – but whatever its title may proclaim, it’s not great.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted January 31, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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