A Well-Lit Life - Aaron Rosenfeld

As a literature professor, it is only fitting that I believe I have learned much about life from literature. Of course, the corollary to this is that I have been accused of not having learned as much about life from life as perhaps I should have.

The main difference between literature and life is that literature possesses an interested, hands-on god—the author—in a way that I strongly suspect the world does not. The presence of a god in turn means that things in literature have meaning, whereas things in life are largely stupid and meaningless. Sometimes, we experience moments of life that seem like they have meaning—birth, death, marriage, great love affairs, etc.—but that is mainly because they resemble a novel.

Art clarifies life, makes it comprehensible in a way that life cannot do for itself. This is why Walter Pater advises that we should spend our days with art:

“We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passion, the wisest, at least among “the children of the world”, in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

What a strange claim. Art has more life in it than life. Art is life that has been curated and distilled for maximum impact, making it ideal for “getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

Pater’s commitment to “art for art’s sake” is thought by most people to be confusing and perverse. Art needs life; it is only an imitation, an adjunct, a helpful commentary on experience–who would prefer it to actual life? Well, life is scary. We see less of life than we ought to because we walk around blinded by sheer terror. The terror of death, naturally, but also the astounding array of terrors that hide behind the innocuous stuff of everyday-–the terror of losing our jobs, our health, our children, our sanity. So we keep our heads down and our perspectives narrow. When we turn to literature, however, as Aristotle and Stanley Kubrick knew, we feel safe to keep our eyes wide open. Then, if we are lucky, we experience catharsis, the purging of pity and fear-or at least the purging of their debilitating parts-so that we can return to the world and once again dip our toe into the stream of life.

Or perhaps we simply read to become numb to all the terrible things that might happen. In life, it is exceedingly rare to have a cage with ravenous rats attached to one’s face. Most of us would never even conceive of such a thing. But, thanks to George Orwell, now I think of it all the time and I have become somewhat used to it.

In that sense, literature provides a form of escapism in its promise of relief from anxiety. There is a more traditional, positive notion of literature as escapism; it provides vicarious thrills, even if these are not always pleasant. On the one hand there are unicorns and rainbows, magical worlds, exciting adventures. But on the other, there are grim dystopias, existential wastelands, and unspeakable tragedy, which are no less thrilling. I remember watching the 1971 post-apocalyptic movie The Omega Man as a child-one of a run of feel-bad Charlton Heston features in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s about the end of the world that includes Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes—and thinking it was pretty awesome that he could just go into a supermarket and grab whatever he wanted, then nab a car from the parking lot to drive off with his loot. The thrill of chaos, of destruction and violence incarnates a most terrible childhood fear: that our parents have been in an awful accident and won’t be returning from date night. But it does so in close proximity with a secret wish: that without their rules and prohibitions, we will be free to indulge forbidden desires. Freud calculates these as sexual; or, they may just be, as Ronald Dahl’s character Matilda puts it in the eponymous musical by Tim Minchin, to “watch cartoons until my eyes go square.”

So, this is something I learned from literature—that some thoughts are better off felt than thought about. The understanding literature provides doesn’t always make sense, isn’t always pleasant, and often isn’t particularly useful, but it is shiny and distracts us from something possibly much worse that we can’t just decide to put down. I’ll take it.

Reading Tack - T.J. Moretti

Before I could read well, I would read diagonally. I’d start at the first few words of a paragraph then coast southeast until I came to the last paragraph. I’d read pages, chapters that way. I think my first experience with this reading tactic was high school freshman year: I had to read Martian Chronicles, so I tacked through it. I haven’t picked up the book since, and I have no idea what it is about, except Martians.

I’d act like a pompous captain of a motorized schooner. Sail furled, I’d plow through a bay, leave speedboats and houseboats in my wake, and feel proud that I had sailed. When reading, I would not tack. I would not work. That was the problem.

I don’t sail, but I know what it means to tack. To move from point to point in a real sailboat, sailors sometimes face headwinds. They have to zig and zag against the wind, sometimes charting a course 1-89° from their actual destination, because of wind velocity, direction, sand bars, or other boats. Tacking is zigging and zagging. It might feel like a detour, but the destination is always clear. (Any sailors out there, correct me if I’m wrong. Correct me in person. Invite me on your boat, in the summer, for a party.)

When I read diagonally, I wasn’t tacking in the true sense of the maneuver. I behaved as if I could measure my comprehension and knowledge based on pages flipped. I mean, I got to the end of the book, didn’t I?

If you think that such a reading strategy is ridiculous, I’m glad, but reading diagonally has different degrees. If a reader skims a paragraph, yes, the reader is reading diagonally. If the reader plows through a sentence without understanding the words and phrases in the sentence, the reader is also reading diagonally. It doesn’t matter if you’ve looked at the words; if you don’t understand them, but keep reading anyway, you might just be a pompous reading captain who is too concerned about the number on the page, usually diagonal from the words you should be concerned about.

Solution? Slow down and tack, even if it feels like a detour that takes too many hours to tolerate. I had to do that when first reading Chaucer in Middle English—“The Knight’s Tale,” my sophomore year in college, spending hours in Philips Library at P.C. with the Riverside in front of me. Every word I’d sound out, every word I didn’t understand phonetically I looked up in the glossary. It took me over 4 hours. It was slow going.

I found that when I tacked slowly, I liked what I was doing. At one point, I read Lord Jim with dictionary.com opened at a computer station. The novella begins with all this nautical, seafaring talk, as if the reader is supposed to know what a jib is. I looked up every word, wrote the definition in my notes, read pages over and over, dead-eyed a guy who mocked me (“you’re using the computer for THAT?!”), and didn’t turn the page until I understood. When I finished, my eyes hurt, and I had dark bags under them. I read the book. I tacked through it.

What I didn’t do, and what I should have done, is read it with others. Talk about it with others who had to read it. Because sailing a boat all on your own is too isolating. So, perhaps some people read diagonally, rush through the pages, and get to the end without getting the ending not because they are pompous, but because they aren’t going to talk to anyone about it. They don’t plan on being social over it. But reading shouldn’t be a solitary trek.

So, welcome Spring 2018. Tack well, and tack with others.

Words I Loathe (part 1) - Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

As my students know, I loathe the word “relatable.” They know because I always tell them, usually early in the semester, and there is always a casualty (and to those unfortunates, I offer an overdue apology, along with my unstinting gratitude for supplying me with my teaching moment).

I had not even heard the word “relatable” until about 10 years ago. In his “On Language” column in the New York Times, Ben Zimmer traces the evolution of the word “relatable” from “able to be related,” as in a story that can be told, to the new usage, “something you can relate to.” He partly blames the influence of television: mass culture requires mass relatability. Since television traffics in flattery of its target demographics, “relatable” is a proxy for profitable. As long as characters on screen offer easy access to fantasies of “they’re just like me,” albeit slightly better looking and with better apartments, our eyes stay glued to the magic mirror.

The problem with “relatable” is that, like the passive voice, it dupes the reader by smudging out the subject. When I say something is relatable, I mean I can relate to it. But, instead of taking responsibility as the one that does the relating, with all the attendant limitations and qualifications that attribution implies, “relatable” pretends what I experience is actually a quality of the object. This might seem like a venal sin, but it has mortal consequences for the intellect.

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century, calls “impersonal imagination” (Lectures on Literature, 4) the reader’s most important tool; identifying with a character is “the worst thing a reader can do” (4). We need “scientific” aloofness to balance emotional intuition if we are to recognize the specificity, the otherness, of the author’s experience. When we identify, we replace the author’s experience with our own; we find – yet again – our same old selves. I can think of no greater horror than being sentenced to bump forever against the bars of my own brain. Say goodbye to the sudden insight that might cause us to reevaluate who and what we are; say goodbye to the exhilarating leap into strangeness.

“Relatable” is the perfect word for a narcissistic age, insisting on the adequacy of the receiver’s experience, even though perhaps the most important reason for reading is to acknowledge our own incompleteness. Writing about student evaluations, Mark Edmundson tells of a professor’s solution to this form of self-satisfaction:

It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? (Harper’s, September 1, 1997)

Edmundson’s cheeky professor raises a real issue. When we cannot relate, maybe we ought to look inward; the fault is not in our books, but in us.

I will admit, I have heard reasonable defenses of “relatable.” Just the other day, a student pointed out, “it doesn’t mean others have to relate, only that I do.” Maybe so, but framing it as a matter of relatability at all presumes we are central to the business at hand. Do authors write for us? Or do they write for themselves, out of a fascination with a feeling, a voice, a story, or a texture that they feel compelled to put into words? If it is the latter, then we are not the destination; we are no more than a bathroom break along the way.

Or, you might argue, “relatable” is like “edible,” just a way of describing whether or not something is ingestible by mind instead of mouth. But not exactly: “edible” describes an empirically verifiable state of being - either something can be eaten or not – the burden of which rests entirely with the object proposed as food (unless we mean it figuratively as hyperbole). Our ability to relate to a work of literature, in contrast, evolves depending on the effort we put into it. A shovel will always be inedible, no matter how good you get at chewing.

Edmundson and Nabokov point to how “relatable” makes intellectual laziness an approved category. We all have a tendency to treat the new things we encounter as confirmation of what we already know. This is how Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” became a poem about following your own path in life rather than a poem about self-deception and regret. Writers play with expectations—they trick us into thinking we are reading something familiar, only to twist it into something new. When we reflexively reduce what they have written to confirmation of our half-formed thoughts, we get it exactly wrong; in our rush to hear our common sense reflected back at us, we miss the meaning entirely.

Ultimately, calling something “relatable” undoes the real work of reading. Reading means hearing the voices of the others that inhabit the texts we read. Some effort is required. Empathy is not a thing that we all simply have in equal measure, it is to be cultivated, and reading is a tool for this end. Reading well can make all things “relatable,” but this is the outcome, not the precondition for our encounter with a work of art or literature.

A work of literature is only as large as the mind that contains it. So next time you find yourself thinking about whether a work is “relatable,” I have a suggestion: look for what is not “relatable” in the text; that is where you are most likely to find its genius. But I imagine you knew that’s what I would say.






What I Read Wednesdays - Alyssa Quinones

Alyssa Quinones


For me, Wednesday is the day of the week that causes me the most stress. I spend my Tuesday evenings and the entirety of my Wednesdays with my nose in a book. As a grad student, having two lit classes back to back that are novel-based is no small feat. The permanent dark circles under my eyes and coffee shakes in my hands are a representation of my perpetual tiredness. But the one thing that makes it all worthwhile—I’m greatly enjoying the books that are being brought my way, books that, if it weren’t for these courses, I probably would have never picked up myself. My Images of Women in Modern American Literature class has been one of my favorite courses I have taken in my collegiate career. Books in that class have not only broaden my scope but have also pushed against my comfort barrier. They have made me cry in sadness and in anger, but have also made me immensely happy. Everyone should read them.


One of those books is Americanah by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This book was a roller coaster of emotions for me, and after Adele dropped ‘Hello’, I couldn’t handle life anymore. If you occasionally jam out to ‘Flawless’ by Beyoncé (if “occasionally” means every day) than you already know who this woman is. Beyoncé sampled words from Adichie’s Ted Talk entitled “We should all be feminists” in her hit song.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)

Adiche, with her authoritative voice and boundless humor, takes you on a sensational journey of race, love, and class by transporting you from the past and the present to tell an unforgettable story about a young woman named Ifemelu. What makes this book so important is how acutely relatable it is because it is of our time. It is rooted in our decade, in our history. The prominence of technology, internet culture, sense of community within the blogging world, the 2008 election and the microscope held over race in America as a result are all aspects of what makes this novel such a prominent and essential part of our culture.

From the beginning of the novel, it becomes clear to the reader that Adichie has a firm grasp and understanding of what makes people tick. Her narration is a flawless examination of race through the lens of “otherness.” We perceive of race through Ifemelu’s eyes whilst in America and in Nigeria, where race is something she never had to truly acknowledge. Back home, the issue at hand wasn’t race, it was class. While going to college in Nigeria, Ifemelu is bogged down by bouts of discontentment. She wants a better life and education for herself.

One of the main complications I had with this novel was the protagonist herself. Although I greatly enjoyed the novel and found Ifemelu’s strength, perseverance, and intelligence to be refreshing to read, I came away with mixed feelings. Ifemelu’s general fickleness and self-sabotaging manner made her a difficult character to like at times. Her relationship with her old boyfriend Obinze conflicted me the most. Unlike a majority of my classmates, I did not view this as a love story and, by the end, was not rooting for the two to be together. But like every relationship Ifemelu has in this novel, she finds a reason to end it. Curt, her first American boyfriend, commonly referred to in her blog posts as the “hot white ex”, provided her with a life too easily lived, too comfortable. His race, wealth, and high social standing provided her with numerous ways to better herself and her standing whilst in America, but she sabotaged herself out of the relationship. She was playing a role if you will, involving herself in an experiment. She was happy, but not content. Her second American boyfriend Blaine, an African-American professor at Yale with high intellect and a false sense of maturity, appeared at first to be the perfect man. Before they had begun dating, Ifemelu could see their lives together quite easily. Once together, the only basis of longevity in their relationship was Obama’s campaign for the presidency. She found it difficult to fit in with his friends. Again, she found pleasure, but she wasn’t content. Obinze was the great love of her life, having met at school in their youth and dating into University, they had a strong and seemingly unbreakable bond. Bouts of depression and feelings of hopelessness regarding her situation caused Ifemelu to feel outside of herself and give up on the relationship.

At times during my reading, Ifemelu came off as petty and selfish. Now and again, her behavior is what caused me to find this book so harrowing to read. I’m fairly certain I had to stop reading out of anger and frustration at least 5 times towards the end of the book. (Note to self: ‘Friends’ is always a great distraction when literature or real life becomes too stressful. Naps help too.) Though, looking back on the novel, now I see that, that is something Adichie was blatantly trying to do. She is able to find the balance between impactful characters that both entertain and enrage whilst offering an important social and cultural commentary.

I hope I didn’t come out sounding too preachy in this post, but my class discussions are only 2 hours long, and I’m fairly sure half of the class would have crucified me for my opinions on Obinze x Ifemelu (#Obinelu? #Ifeminize?). I think I may be the only one who feels this way about Ifemelu. I’m sure the Internet dwellers are sharpening their pitchforks, but, even though I had my problems with the two protagonists of this novel, it was still one of the greatest novels I have ever read. I hope my interpretation of Ifemelu as a character can spark some conversation. She is a character that, like any human being, is riddled with many flaws, but flawed characters are usually the most interesting ones to read.

The end of Americanah brought with it a sense of longing and melancholy. I found I was not yet ready to leave the story or the characters within it. I wish we got to see more of Obinze’s point of view. Although I disagreed with some of his actions, I found him to be a very fascinating character and his time in England was some of my favorite parts to read in the novel.

Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ifemelu and Obinze as a couple by the end, I liked the idea that there is a certain dullness to life without the one you love. They both were living a life removed of color because the person they wanted to be with was no longer in it, a life of black and white, separations and categories, decisions and paths, all leading them to their true adventures.

One of the many securities of literature is that it can offer its readers an escape from their lives. In light of recent events in Paris, please stay safe and love one another.

Starting Convos - Dr. Dean Defino

Conversations start when two or more people share something in common.  It may be something very basic, like standing in the same place at the same time (“Do you know if the bus is running on time?”; “I think that penguin just winked at us”), or something more profound, like a shared passion.  If you have come to this blog, it is most likely because you share a passion for books, for stories, for words, and the ways they work on our senses and our imaginations.  Here you will find others who share that passion.  And so a conversation will begin.

What will we talk about?  The things we love.  Sometimes we will simply want to share our passions by recommending the things we love to each other.  Sometimes we will feel compelled to explain; other times, we will be forced to admit that we don’t fully understand.  That’s good.  This isn’t a thesis or a project, but a place to meet and be enthusiastic.  Not necessarily as students or teachers or scholars or critics, but as amateurs, a word that originally meant “lovers.”

We’ve all had that experience of reading a book or poem, watching a movie or a play, and suddenly falling head-over-heels in love with it.  Not the sort of love we feel for concepts, ideals, or community, but the messy, irrational, trip-over-ourselves-to-tell-others kind of love.  That’s what we want to celebrate here.  Will we try to convince each other that we should all love these things too?  Of course.  That’s what we do when we are passionate.  That’s what connects us.  That’s what starts conversations.

So to all lovers of stories, of words, of the music and noise, beauty and horror, virtue and vice of reading—whatever it is we love to read: I say to you, welcome to the conversation.

~Dean Defino