Putting down Aristotle

Criticizing accessibility in literature alienates potential readers and does a disservice to book lovers

By Charna Albert

I saw Jhumpa Lahiri give a reading from her work at International House a few days ago. Lahiri, the author of the stunning novel The Namesake, is truly a lyrical genius. Her reading was great, but I have to say I was kind of disappointed with the interview portion of the talk.

It may have been the fault of the interviewer, because the interviewer’s questions were somewhat uninspired. She mainly pointed out overlying themes from Lahiri’s work and then asked Lahiri for affirmation that these themes were, in fact, what Lahiri was going for. (You have a lot of architectural symbols in your work, right? Why, yes, I do.) After sitting through this somewhat vapid conversation, I was really excited to hear a comment from Lahiri that seemed really inspired and insightful. The interviewer asked her about her childhood as the daughter of a librarian, and this led to a tangent in the conversation in which Lahiri spoke about what she thinks the purpose of books should be, and what kinds of relationships people should have with books.

“Literature requires a certain sort of attention, which I can’t help but think is a good thing for us” she said. “I wouldn’t want writers to write in a way that was more easily digested. I never thought that was the point.”

She said this in the context of the virtues of reading physical books over reading websites and comics and blogs and tweets and whatever other multimedia is flung at us every day as we go about our lives. At first I thought that was pretty cool and profound. Obviously, books are really great and I don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t come from a family that encouraged me to read, and to love it. But after some reflection, I realized how much I actually completely disagree with Lahiri. The more I think about it, the more Lahiri’s comment actually seems to touch on a pivotal point of contention between book lovers and, well, people that think that books shouldn’t be “easily digested.”

It’s a kind of pretentiousness or snobbery, a conservative reaction to a world where it does seem like people have shorter attention spans and require their literature to be in a format that’s easy to read, and preferably does not require so much commitment that they have to sign off of Facebook in order to concentrate on it. In a world where people have less time to read and Wikipedia and Sparknotes are rampant, it’s an understandable reaction to assert that “real” literature should use difficult vocabulary and be reviewed in the Sunday New York Times. But this attitude is not going to win over committed reality TV fans and bring them into the literature fold. In a time where it seems like even print journalism is becoming obsolete, we’re hard pressed to get people to read anything, much less read Finnegans Wake. We in the book appreciation fan club of the world cannot afford to alienate new converts by turning up our noses at less critically acclaimed pop literature. While much of what the general populace reads hasn’t made it into the classical canon, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own value.

As a UChicago student, I know what it’s like to read “hard-to-digest” books. And now I need Tums. There has to be a division of reading material in between Nicomachean Ethics and Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed. I’ve enjoyed my school readings—well, most of them, anyway. But I couldn’t only read books of that caliber. To maintain sanity, I think people need to read something a little lighter on the stomach now and then. Or else people really will give up on literature and spend all their time on FML.com.

Personally, after I’ve finished my obligatory 300 pages a week of reading for school, I’m too exhausted to think of reading something a little lighter, or at least that’s how I felt all of fall and winter quarter. Recently, however, I went to the Reg, not to study, but to check out a book. (I know, it’s revolutionary.) I ended up with Catcher in the Rye. I’d never read it before, and I felt like it was necessary, not because it’s part of some classical canon, à la UChicago core class reading material, but because it’s something that’s mentioned a lot in popular culture and in regular conversation. There’s something to be said for being familiar with books typically mentioned in pop culture, not only because they’re usually famous for a reason, but because being familiar with such books brings you into the community of people who are well versed in a certain class of literature, even if it’s not Dante’s Inferno we’re talking about here.

I’m not attacking Lahiri. I think she’s an incredible writer, and in fact, I think her books belong in the category of books that I consider somewhere in between Hum reading material and pop lit. But I also think that if we are serious about getting the public to read, we need to market books in such a way that they are a rewarding pleasure, not a duty or, at worst, a stomachache.

Charna Albert is a first-year in the College.