In honour of the 50th anniversary of the monumental and essential Norton Anthology of English Literature, legendary founding editor M.H. Abrams and current editor Stephen Greenblatt got together to reflect on the anthology’s place in education and in people’s lives (and bedrooms!). The topics they discussed included the ultimate question: Why study literature?
Abrams: Ha — Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury. It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing. It shows you possibilities you haven’t thought of. It enables you to live the lives of other people than yourself. It broadens you, it makes you more human. It makes life enjoyable. There’s no end to the response you can make to that question, but Stephen has a few things to add.
Greenblatt: Literature is the most astonishing technological means that humans have created, and now practiced for thousands of years, to capture experience. For me the thrill of literature involves entering into the life worlds of others. I’m from a particular, constricted place in time, and I suddenly am part of a huge world — other times, other places, other inner lives that I otherwise would have no access to.
[Read the full dialogue at the New York Times.]
My first encounter with the Norton Anthology was when my roommate got one for her introductory literature course. I was loaded down with massive science textbooks so the paperback Norton seemed a tidy little package by comparison. A few years later my grandmother passed away and I inherited her Norton Anthology, which she used in a course she took around the age of 78. To me it’s a reminder of her intellectual curiosity and a symbol of lifelong learning. Next to it sit my own set of Nortons, the eighth edition published in 2005. As M.H. Abrams mentioned in the discussion quoted above, the Norton Anthology has gotten bigger, but now has the advantage of online supplements. Perhaps an ebook edition is next, which would certainly help students with their back problems, but they’ll lose the pleasure of returning to their Nortons for decades to come and passing them on to the next generation. Half of the pleasure of the Norton Anthology is just flipping through those delicate onion skin pages at random, and you certainly can’t do that with an ebook. I wonder if future generations will have the same fond memories of their Norton Anthology as past English students do? What are your Norton Anthology memories?
I must confess that I have never been very attracted to poetry. When I was younger I found it quite bewildering. My linear mind was tripped up by every line of creative syntax, I was too naïve to grasp the emotional content, and any biblical or literary allusions went right over my head. Now that I’m older and my brain has filled out a little I am a more curious about poetry. Today’s observance of World Poetry Day has inspired me to crack open my copy of World Poetry, which I recently picked up at a thrift store.
It occurred to me that part of my problem with poetry is that I somehow got the idea that if a poem is printed in a book, it must be good and so I should like it. After reading a few poems I noticed that I liked some right away, but many others simply did not interest me. Perhaps that’s OK. It may be that poetry is a more personal matter than prose. At any rate it is probably a good place to start, so here is one of the poems I like:
An Answer to Viceprefect Zhang
In my later years I care only for quiet;
Affairs of the world no longer concern me.
Communing with myself I find no plan –
I only know I must return to the forest.
Pine winds loosen my clothing,
The mountain moon shines on my lute.
You ask me about success and failure?
Listen! a fisherman’s song floats upstream.
—Wang Wei (699-759)