Literature: A Student’s Guide

Hello! Yes, it’s been a while….

April has been one of those months that has gone by like a tube through an underground station that’s not on its stop list. Yet the beginning of April also feels far away—as if the tube has travelled far since then and passed through many more stations.

It’s been quite a month, from my final Shakespeare exam to the final weeks of my Non-Western Literature course to housekeeping while my parents were away to a short but delightful weekend in Cambridge with SJ, to a bunch of other things, big and small, joyful and hard. Blogging, therefore, has been limping along in the distance behind me—the limp both of busyness and of Lack of Inspiration.

But here I am again, however, with April almost under my belt, trying to get back into my once-a-week posting rhythm. I have a couple of good books that I’m either reading right now or that are in my to-read queue, so I’m hoping that some of them will pop up here over the next few months. But for now, let me tell you about a little book I’ve just finished, Literature: A Student’s Guide, by Louis Markos. I borrowed it from a friend for a paper I was writing, and although I didn’t end up using it for my assignment, I decided it looked good enough to read anyway.

Literature (no, I’m not going to type the whole title every time) is part of Crossway’s series “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition”. While the series, according to the blurb on the back of the book,  is aimed at Christian students and others involved in academic life, Literature is certainly suitable for teenagers and adults in general, college students or not. It’s short (in the region of 100 pages) and is a down-to-earth and readable introduction to literature—poetry in particular.

Markos begins with an introduction entitled “Why Literature Matters”. He makes a point in there that I, as an English student, particularly like: “I have always found it terribly ironic that people in the natural and social sciences will frequently claim that what they teach is more true than what literature teaches.  I have often wondered how such people define the word true. Certainly one of the most essential qualities of truth is that it lasts, that it does not change radically from age to age and generation to generation, that it persists, endures, abides—which is precisely what does not happen in the sciences. Every fifty years—today it is more like every twenty—scientists reject the old paradigm in favor of a new one. The social sciences change even more rapidly….” He goes on, but I think you get the general idea. When today’s scientific theories have been consigned to history, people will still be reading and learning from and enjoying Shakespeare and Milton and George Herbert, not to mention more recent (and much more ancient!) authors.

The first two chapters actually cover the nuts and bolts of poetry, first in terms of form (“Rhythm and Rhyme”) and then in terms of figurative language (“Words and Images”). If you’ve ever wanted to know about the various meters that are used to provide poetry with its distinctive feel, or are unsure of what a metaphor us, these are the chapters for you. Even if you are more familiar with such terms, it can still be helpful refresher.

I was glad to see Markos touch on free verse, as I distinctly dislike the way so much modern poetry has abandoned metrical form. (I don’t dislike every free verse poem I have ever read, but it has to be a very good poem to atone for being free verse!) Amongst other things, he has this to say: “Poetry, when it is most worthy of itself, is incarnational, fusing form and content, sound and sense into a two-into-one union …. The modern Western world has, in many ways, lost its perception of and belief in a world of order, beauty, and purpose, and that loss is partly reflected, I believe, in the abandonment of traditional meter.” Furthermore, he says in another chapter, restricting oneself to a form actual opens the way for more creativity, rather than less: “the great poets who have ‘enslaved’ themselves to rigid meters have found in it a discipline, an order, and a hierarchy that have made them more, not less, creative.” Thank you, Dr Markos.

Next comes a quick overview of “Authors, Ages, and Genres”, a chapter that provides a helpful, big-picture look at the key periods in literature—Classical, Medieval, and so forth. Markos finishes up with another big-picture sweep through history (“Theory and Criticism”), this time by providing a quick background as to how different periods in history have thought about the nature and purpose of literature (again, poetry is emphasised).

Ok, so he doesn’t quite finish up there—there is also some supplemental material (which I haven’t read): reflection questions, a timeline, a glossary, and resources for further reading. All in all, I think that makes Literature a valuable introduction to, well, literature (remember that that particularly means poetry in the context of Markos’ book). I didn’t agree with every single comment Markos made, but then I don’t even agree with every single comment I make, so I won’t hold that against him! If you don’t already have a literature textbook or handbook, and you’d like a short and simple introduction, I’d recommend it.

Markos quotes a lovely Wordsworth poem when he talks about creativity within the limits of metrical form. I thought I’d quote it here too–enjoy!

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.



The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

Choice is a good thing, right?

Not necessarily, according to Barry Schwartz. In this book on “how the culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction”, Schwartz examines the psychology of decision-making and in particular how the super-abundance of choices can actually make it harder, not only to make decisions, but to be satisfied with the decisions that we do make. And let’s be clear that Schwartz doesn’t think that living in a culture where we are permitted no choices is a good thing—he strongly believes in the importance of choice, but argues that this is an area where it’s more than possible to have too much of a good thing.

How many times have you heard people exclaim in semi-bemused frustration—or exclaimed yourself—when trying to make a decision, “Too much choice!”? I know I’ve heard it and I’m sure I’ve said it. And in our comfortable Western culture, we could say this about a myriad of things from lipstick to car insurance policies to prospective universities. The amount of available choices, Schwartz argues, can not only make it harder to make decisions, which would seem the most obvious factor, but can also make us less satisfied with the decisions that we do make, as we are tempted to think about the options we passed by in order to settle on this particular shampoo or holiday or spouse. Schwartz has some fascinating information on how we actually make decisions (takeaway point—your decisions may well be less rational than you think they are) and how we deal with the decisions that we do make—and in both instances, the amount of decisions available can cause problems.

Schwartz makes clear that the increase in the amount of things one can choose from isn’t just things one can buy, although they may come to mind most quickly. We tend to have many more options in what jobs we choose (there was, after all, a time when the natural thing for a man to do was to follow his father’s footsteps in whatever job he had), whom we marry (Schwartz doesn’t mention internet dating but it’s a moot point here), and how we live our lives in general in a society that places much less restraint on the behaviour of the people within it than it once did (a helpful and interesting point, when you come to think about it).

One chapter that I particularly liked is entitled “Why Decisions Disappoint: the Problem of Adaptation”.  We all know what it’s like for the thrill of something new to wear off, whether it’s a new dress, a new phone, or a new job. Something that feels great to begin with just doesn’t feel great forever. We’ve got used to it, and that can be disappointing. We want to always feel as we did on our first day of driving around our new car, or in our first years of marriage. Life just doesn’t work that way, but Schwartz says that we’re poor at factoring this into our decision making.

Schwartz doesn’t appear to be a Christian, but he does have some helpful advice about how to deal with the plethora of choices we face and how to feel better about the ones that we do make.

Here are three particularly good takeaway points, each with a quote from the section where he expands on them:

“Think about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs”.

“When making a decision, it’s usually a good idea to think about the alternatives we will pass up when choosing our most preferred option. Ignoring these ‘opportunity costs’ can lead us to overestimate how good the best option is. On the other hand, the more we think about opportunity costs, the less satisfaction we’ll derive from whatever we choose. So we should make an effort to limit how much we think about the attractive features of options we reject.”

“Make your decisions nonreversible”.

“I think the power of nonreversible decisions comes through most clearly when we think about our most important choices. A friend once told me how his minister had shocked the congregation with a sermon on marriage in which he said flatly that, yes, the grass is always greener. What he meant was that, inevitably, you will encounter people who are younger, better looking, funnier, smarter, or seemingly more understanding and empathetic than your wife or husband. But finding a life partner is not a matter of comparison shopping and ‘trading up’. The only way to find happiness and stability in the presence of seemingly attractive and tempting options is to say, ‘I’m simply not going there. I’ve made my decision about a life partner, so this person’s empathy or that person’s looks really have nothing to do with me. I’m not in the market—end of story’”

“Practice an ‘attitude of gratitude’”.

“We can vastly improve our subjective experience by consciously striving to be grateful more often for what is good about a choice or an experience, and to be disappointed less by what is bad about it.”

No, it’s not rocket science, but if it were the sort of thing we all did, there’d be no need to include it in a book!

The Paradox of Choice is both insightful and practical. If you want to understand more about how you make decisions, and learn how to make them better, you could do worse than to check it out. And if you can’t decide whether or not to read it, let me know and I can walk you through the decision-making process….