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17 August 2015updated 29 Aug 2015 12:34pm

How books help us to be better human beings

Is literature therapy, comfort food, or a route to self-knowledge? Four literary critics – Alberto Manguel, Michael Hofmann, James Wood and Clive James – pick up where Montaigne left off.

By Jonathan Bate

Last month, the American literature expert Sarah Churchwell, a familiar figure from review columns and literary prize judging panels, was appointed to the position of Professor of the Public Understanding of the Humanities in the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. The name of the chair is adapted from one established in Oxford 20 years ago when Charles Simonyi, then head of Microsoft’s intentional programming team, endowed a professorship for the public understanding of science. The remit of that chair was “to communicate science to the public without, in doing so, losing those elements of scholarship which constitute the essence of true understanding”. In reality, the original purpose was to give a platform to Richard Dawkins. Simonyi, who was, I think, the first to call him “Darwin’s Rottweiler”, was a great admirer of the clarity of exposition in Dawkins’s books The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. Since Dawkins’s retirement, the Oxford chair has been held by the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy.

Most members of the public will readily understand the need for a professorship of the public understanding of such important but difficult disciplines as biology and mathematics. During the past 20 years, enormous benefits have flowed from the work of “popular” science writers and broadcasters (some say that the pop-star scientist Brian Cox single-handedly arrested the alarming decline in the number of students applying to university to study physics). But why do we need a parallel position for the humanities?

“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;/The proper study of mankind is man,” wrote Alexander Pope in the 18th century (ignore, for now, the gendering of the pronoun): the humanities is the blanket term for the study of human beings, ourselves, our ideas and our passions, our cultures and our histories. Does the public really need a professorship devoted to the communication of such disciplines as literature and history? Shouldn’t all work in the humanities be accessible to the public anyway? Do Socrates, Shakespeare and Hitler need the same kind of “translation” (or simplification) that is necessary to create wide understanding of black holes, the phenotypic effects of a gene or the reconciliation of general relativity with quantum mechanics?

When Melvyn Bragg treats a science subject on In Our Time on Radio 4, most of us get lost at some point in the course of the programme. This doesn’t usually – and certainly shouldn’t – happen when the subject is the Russian Revolution, Romantic poetry or the Yoruba religion. The intuitive view would be that the humanities become “difficult” only when they approach the sciences; for instance, when you try to explain advanced formal logic or Chomskyan transformational grammar. Might the very creation of a chair in the public understanding of the humanities suggest that something has gone badly wrong with the way that the humanities are now studied in universities? And might that be one cause of the haemorrhaging of students away from the humanities in the US in recent years?

In a learned book published last year, ­Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton), the scholar James Turner argued that such academic subjects as classics, literary study, history, art history, anthropology, comparative religious studies and, for that matter, the bedevilling division between the natural and the human sciences, can be traced back to the splintering of the master discipline of “philology” – the pursuit of wisdom through the study of written words – in the late 19th ­century.

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Before the age of overspecialisation, a Harvard professor such as Charles Eliot Norton (an admirer of the polymath John Ruskin) could move with ease between textual editing of John Donne’s poetry, the linguistic study of Dante’s Divine Comedy, ­medieval architecture, art history and classical archaeology. He was a professor of the public understanding of the humanities avant la lettre, but he wouldn’t get tenure in today’s academe, where it is necessary for young scholars to prove themselves by way of “original research” on ever narrower themes. The more specialised the object of study, the less accessible – or, for the most part, of interest – it will be to the public.

Literature ought to be the most accessible of disciplines. Yes, it will help with your in-depth understanding of the character of Levin in Anna Karenina if you know a little bit about the history of the emancipation of the serfs, but “public understanding” of the novel’s core matter – getting married, getting bored, falling in love with someone else, committing adultery – is within the grasp of any literate grown-up human being. In the late 20th century, however, there was a sustained assault from within the profession of literary studies on the very idea of common humanity and (Virginia Woolf’s phrase) the “common reader”. If a student said, “Yes, I know that Anna Karenina is a fictional creation but I understand how she must have felt and this understanding helps me to understand myself,” they would be told, “It is an error to treat a literary character as anything other than a rhetorical or linguistic or formal or historical or social or gendered construct; all literary texts are racked with fissures, gaps and self-contradictions, and all authors are locked within the ideological frameworks of their age; that is what it is our business to unpack, critique and deconstruct.” And the student would become rather miserable, lose their love of books and go off to do a postgraduate law conversion course.

Over the past few weeks I have been reading four enormously enjoyable books about the pleasure of reading. The richest of them is Curiosity by Alberto Manguel, a Canadian writer, editor, translator and critic who “would rather define himself as a reader”. The other three are collections of essays, by the poet and translator Michael Hofmann; James Wood, resident literary critic at the New Yorker; and Clive James, the “memoirist, poet, translator, critic and broadcaster”. It is striking that none of them has made it their profession to teach literature at a university (though Hofmann and Wood supplement their earnings with visiting faculty positions). It is even more striking that the kinds of things they say would never (well, hardly ever) be said by a professor in a department of English: “art is the nearest thing to life” (Wood, quoting George Eliot); “This transmigration of souls is literature’s modest miracle” (Manguel on how “if we recognise ourselves in Cordelia today, we may call Goneril our sister tomorrow, and end up, in days to come, kindred spirits with Lear, a foolish, fond old man”); “Ted Hughes is at least arguably the greatest English poet since Shakespeare” (Hofmann); “Finally you get to the age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it” (James, on reading and rereading in the knowledge that he is in the endgame of a life of reading).

These are books about how books help us to be thoughtful, feeling human beings. They are works of empathy even as the spirit of criticism shines through them, provokingly in Hofmann, very subtly in Wood, sometimes flashily but always sincerely in James. “Books have been useful to me,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century, “less for instruction than as training.” “That,” writes Manguel, whose book is really a series of interlocking essays inspired by Montaigne – divagating, spiralling dizzily through world literature but always circling back to Dante’s Divine Comedy – “has been precisely my case.” Manguel writes of his “friendship” with Montaigne, dating it back to his adolescence: “his Essays have since been for me a kind of autobiography, as I keep finding in his comments my own preoccupations and experiences translated into luminous prose”. I would say the same of my relationship with William Hazlitt, the English Montaigne, but as a professor of English literature I will be considered mildly heretical in saying anything so personal.

Montaigne himself wrote a wonderful essay suggesting that the three best things in life are friendship, sex and reading, and the best of the three is reading. Your friend may die, your sexual partner may betray you, but literature is always there. He did, however, concede, “Reading has its disadvantages – they are weighty ones: it exercises the soul, but during that time the body remains inactive and grows earth-bound and sad.” As a young man, Montaigne would have added riding as a fourth great pleasure, but his love of physical exercise was curtailed by a near-fatal accident involving a runaway horse. An article in the Psychiatric Times in 2012 suggested that it was a combination of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder that made him retreat to his library and devote the rest of his life to books. It is probably not a good idea to spend quite as much time with books as Montaigne did. If I have a criticism of the four lovely writers in whom I have been immersing myself, it is that they all seem a little library-bound. My digestion of their nourishing words has been assisted by frequent excursions to the tennis court, rather as Hazlitt read and wrote best after a game of fives, or enriched his friendships through brisk walks accompanied by book-talk.

Conversation is the key: the problem with “academic” literary analysis is that too often it sounds like talking at the reader or, worse, talking down to him or her. And the style is all too frequently that of the monologue. But the experience of reading the classics is a genuine dialogue with the dead. For Manguel, Dante and Montaigne are living presences. As is Conrad for Clive James (he made me think: “Yes, I must go back to Conrad, haven’t read him for years and years”). When James is dead he will live on through his books. Similarly, although I have never met Michael Hofmann, I feel, thanks to Where Have You Been? (which, admittedly, is not a great deal more than a collection of book reviews), as if I have had a conversation with an enthusiastic friend who has told me what I should read next. It will, if you want to know, be the Canadian poet Karen Solie, whom he describes as “the one by whom the language lives”.

Naturally, it is the business of the professional investigator to systematise know­ledge, and on reading these books about reading by lifelong readers who are not professional scholars of literary history and theory, I have been asking myself what would be the best word for their mode of reading. Empathetic, eclectic, enthusiastic: all of these things. Unashamedly personal, yes, but also attentive, argued, nuanced. Wood in particular, writing under the influence of the late Frank Kermode, has a fine eye for small but telling details such as the whiff of peppermint in a woman’s kiss in a short story by Chekhov. Perhaps the term is interrogative criticism. Manguel begins from Montaigne’s question “Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?”: ultimately I know only myself. Wood begins with “why?”: his parents found the answer in religion, he turns to literature as a form of spilt religion. James’s mind is concentrated by the prospect of imminent death: what should I read in the autumn of my days? Boswell’s Life of Johnson, of course.

Alternatively, following Montaigne’s and Manguel’s idea of reading as “training” for the art of being human, we might describe it as paideutic criticism, the term taken from the ancient Greek idea of paideia – the original foundation of humanistic study. Paideia meant the pursuit of self-knowledge through examination of the beautiful and the good. By “reading” Homer and Sophocles, Herodotus and Pericles, or the architecture of the Parthenon, you could come to know yourself, to achieve excellence, to be aware of the virtue of “the golden mean”. By reading and rereading the classics in the company of these genial guides, Virgils to our Dante, we can, in a more modestly modern way, achieve some similar serenity.

Perhaps the best term would be therapeutic criticism. Manguel describes the experience of having a stroke. One evening he sat down to answer a letter, but as he was about to write the words he felt they were escaping from him, “vanishing into air before reaching the paper”. In the emergency department, “To prove to myself that I had not lost the capacity of remembering words, only that of expressing them out loud, I began to recite in my head bits of literature I knew by heart.” Thanks to this self-prescribed mental medication, within a few hours he is able to write again, within a few weeks to speak without stammer or hesitation.

For Wood, less dramatically but more sustainedly, literature is therapy for the vacancy left by the loss of the religious faith that sustained his parents, and for Clive James it is comfort food in his autumnal days. Montaigne’s essays are meditations on how we should live. One of them argues that to philosophise is to learn how to die. The impressive thing about these four essay collections is that they continually gesture towards the big life-or-death questions, but never presume to be in command of the answers. Rather, they are gatherings of grace notes that lead us to moments of insight, negations of the everyday stuff that stresses us, intimations of immortality (the words that live on even as authors die). They are confirmations of Dr Johnson’s supremely sane opinion: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”

Jonathan Bate is professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Provost of Worcester College. His biography of Ted Hughes will be published in October by William Collins

Curiosity by Alberto Manguel is published by Yale University Press, 392pp, £18.99; Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays by Michael Hofmann is published by Faber & Faber, 304pp, £30; The Nearest Thing To Life by James Wood is published by Jonathan Cape, 144pp, £12.99; Latest Readings by Clive James is published by Yale University Press, 192pp, £12.99.

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