Oh No, Don’t Tell Me That!

From Stanford: (HT: DT)

The Humanities at Stanford

Those long summer days spent reading by the pool might not be so lazy after all.

Readers of literary works by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Stéphane Mallarmé and Geoffrey Chaucer are getting lots of exercise from these personal trainers for the brain.

New research by Stanford’s Joshua Landy, associate professor of French and Italian, illustrates how authors throughout the ages have sought to improve mental skills like rational thinking and abstract thought by leading their readers through a gantlet of mental gymnastics.

In contrast to the common practice of mining fictional works for moral messages and information, Landy’s theory of fiction, outlined in his new book, “How to Do Things with Fictions,” presents a new reason for reading in an age when the patience to tackle challenging pieces of writing has dwindled tremendously.

Reading fiction “does not make us better people in the moral sense, whether by teaching us lessons, making us more empathetic or training us to handle morally complex situations,” said Landy.

However, for those interested in fine-tuning their intellectual capacities, Landy said literary works of fiction can offer “a new set of methods for becoming a better maker of arguments, a better redeemer of one’s own existence, a person of stronger faith or a person with a quieter mind.”

Landy’s new “formative fiction” theory advises against a utilitarian search for meaning or information that results in an “I got what I need and I can move on” attitude. His theory implies that readers will get much more out of a text by lingering over passages, contemplating ideas between reading sessions and re-reading passages after some reflection.

According to Landy, the formative fiction approach makes complex texts more accessible to non-academic readers.

“Once you realize that some of the arguments are simply not supposed to work at all, Plato’s dialogues become less forbidding,” Landy said. Readers still have to invest effort, but “you aren’t always asking yourself ‘what does it mean?’ and ‘why don’t I understand?'”

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  • Luke Allison

    That explains why I still don’t understand Finnegan’s Wake, but managed to compose a symphony all three times I finished it.

    But seriously, is there any other theory that can rightly explain Joyce, Proust, Pynchon, Kafka (okay, maybe not Kafka) or Disch?

    Speaking of which, Scot have you seen this excellent and very deep list of the 100 best writers of all time? I’m not too familiar with a lot of the poets, but I realize that I’ve read lots and lots of the novelists. Fun to peruse.

  • Stephen

    I don’t need to understand? That’s a relief! Tom Clancy is hard work.

  • I have always thought of myself as a slow reader, but only because it takes me forever to finish a book. It’s interesting to me, then, that Professor Landy is suggesting this different way for us to read, which feels, to me, like the way I’ve always read. I think there actually are books that want to “make us better people in the moral sense,” but lose interest in those after 50 pages. The works that live up to Landy’s standard for formative fiction are the ones that engage me, and they’re always demanding, even laborious. They take me almost as much time and attention, word for word, as poetry. I read my Bible the same way.

  • Sheila

    As a lover of “story” and therefore of fiction, I find this utilitarian approach to the art very troubling. To use Tolkien’s writing, for example, as a mental gymnasium, is as fundamentally wrong-headed as using the Pieta for weight-lifting.