Monday, August 21, 2006

Humans: the animals that get bored

What is the purpose of literature? I like the Marxist explanations (to teach cultural norms, to reinforce or subvert dominant ideology, etc.). I like the Existential-Spiritual explanations (to explore what it means to be human, to find the meaning of life, etc.). But those explanations don't seem quite there.

What I think about the meaning of literature, I picture a bunch of people sitting around a fire as somebody recites The Odyssey. I start thinking of long nights between days of work. And it all becomes clear just what the purpose of literature is.

To pass the time.

Literature exists to relieve boredom. My guess is that ancient people wanted something to entertain themselves with in the times between when they had things to do. Thus, literature.

Sure, it does other things. We've found all sorts of new ways to entertain ourselves and avoid boredom, and yet literature persists and wil persist because its meaning and purposes are deep. And yet, still literature's primary purpose is to pass the time, to entertain us, to relieve boredom.

Literature exists to pass the time (so do games/sports, which probably have a longer histoyr in human existence than literature, so don't be too snobbish in dismissing the pointlessness of sports and the supposed shallowness of those of us who follow and cherish them closely).

Anyway, today is a department meeting, so even though I'm still over two weeks from teaching my first class, I'm considering today the symbolic end to summer. So here are capsule reviews of the books I passed the time with this summer.

The World's Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy
I think it's silly that states have things like a state bird, a state flower, and all that crap. These are the clues that always stump me on crosswords. So I've started making up our household items. Our official household lighting fixture is lamp. Our official household mammal is cat. And if we have an household poet laureate, it would be Carol Ann Duffy, a rare poet that my wife and I both love. Should we write her a letter informing her of the honor?

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton
A conventional Lutheran biography of the man that does a good job providing historical context.

Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, by Erik Erikson
It's a book of ideas as much as a biography, and a brilliant one at that.

Luther: Man Between the God and the Devil, by Heiko Oberman
Revisionist history that isn't utterly convincing, but is well-written and insightful.

A Gathering of Old Men, by Ernest Gaines
This novel takes place during one day, and in that day Gaines succeeds in describing the entire history of white-black relations in the South. An underrated achievement.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Frankly, I like The Bluest Eye better. It's an important book, though.

Operation Shylock: A Confession, by Philip Roth
Roth is growing on me. A good novel of ideas.

MacBeth, by William Shakespeare
The Bard gives you something new each time you read one of his plays. This time, the issue of gender roles and essence stuck out to me.

Spiral, by Koji Suzuki
Actually creepier than the first book.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard
Funny stuff. Very funny stuff.

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
The play that inspired a generation of playwrights to write about two boobs sitting around inanely waiting is still probably the best one.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
, by Gregory Maguire
My favorite book I read this summer. Awe-inspiring. The soundtrack for the musical is wonderful, too.

Mantissa, by John Fowles
Certainly not Fowles' best or most important work, but he knows it (the title is from an old word meaning an addendum that may be minor or trivial). Still, he plays around.

Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
I wish Miller were a poet. He writes some really incredible sentences. But I don't like works of literature or film that are just about a bunch of stuff that happens.


  1. i think miller was a lyrical sex essaist more than a novelist. i thought the bit about the poet was pretty funny, too.

  2. Sex? There was hardly any sex in this Tropic of Cancer book. I was reading it saying, "This is what people talk about? Why were George and Jerry so excited to get a look at this?" Maybe Capricorn has more, I don't know.