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How literature died for me

In late June, I panicked. No external reason for spiraling existed — in fact, others would almost certainly describe my activity du jour as “relaxation.” An Adirondack chair was involved, ample sunshine lit the book in front of me, a dog sat at my feet. But my mind had splintered, and I felt I had failed. A bouquet of faces dominated my field of vision. I saw my English professors, so careful and encouraging of my thirst to read; my parents, so enthralled by my ever-growing knowledge of literature; my friends, who had always recognized so immediately the animating force of language in my life. I saw my own face, just a year and a half ago, ejecting herself from a technical major because she finally acknowledged that there existed a ravenous, raucous, playful, powerful part of her that the exhilaration of reading alone could satisfy.  

And yet, here I was, in the middle of summer with not a thing to do beyond luxuriate in the words in front of me. The text was George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a novel I’d been working at for some time, as concision had not proved to be a talent of the great Victorian writers. One of my professors had hailed Eliot’s tour de force as the greatest novel ever written in English. Eliot’s sentences are masterful flicks of the wrist; they start you in one place and transport you somewhere else in a way that tests even the most formidable intellect. She is witty, delightful and empathetic. Or so I had heard. 

Instead, when I opened up the book to follow Dorothea and the other characters of her provincial town, I experienced physical repulsion. My attention strayed and my hands shook and my heart contracted and pumped much too fast. The words swam before my corneas and turned to nothingness. The co-creative, imaginative immersion that novels had once accomplished for me became the quintessence of dust. 

 I had to admit it: I hated this novel. I really hated George Eliot’s masterpiece. Ah! But how could one hate an idol? A veritable God of prose? A pioneering woman writer? Philistinism had descended upon me. Yes, Middlemarch was just one novel, and I had disliked books before. Yet Eliot’s tome had acquired a symbolic significance beyond mere dislike of a beloved classic. I had to admit more than just that I hated this novel. I had to admit a much more sobering, blasphemous truth: literature itself had died for me. 

For the rest of the summer, I could not read anything save “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Money Diaries.” I could not open a book. I shied away from any mildly intellectual conversation and sought to minimize my contact with anyone who might notice what had happened. They would label me either worthy of immeasurable pity or a massive hypocrite. All my hifalutin talk of literature’s redemptive power had been reduced to hogwash. 

The seeming death of my passion for literature led to shame, anger, sadness, even a loss of self. The narrative I had told myself, of a potential PhD, of spending a life engaged with art’s infinite variety, of pushing my mind as far as it could go, disappeared. Literature had died for me. But who had killed it? 

The answer to this question is a complicated one, and one that I hope to explore in a series of columns this quarter. I plan to write about the dissatisfaction I feel with the state of literary criticism today, with the problem of engaging with art for argument alone, with the destabilizing, debilitating isolation of reading and with the notion that to say no to more intense intellectual edification is a failure. 

Yet I must also profess that writing these words is a painful act of vulnerability. And this act is itself an argument. It is a call for humanists or really anyone who has ever claimed to have a transcendent “passion” to admit that undying passion is itself a fiction. We tell ourselves that we love one thing and not another. We construct careful identities in response to a self-fashioning mythos of deep, soul-quenching love for that thing. I loved literature. That was it. End of story. Whatever happened to me in my life, whoever left me or hurt me, I could always turn to that pantheon of texts for comfort in the face of strife. Thus, to admit that literature had died was to see my sense of self die along with it. What heavy stakes for such immaterial things as words! 

I am not yet sure of the stakes these sentences hold. But I do believe that what I have written is more than an elegy. Certainly, there is grief here. However, there is also energy. What I have now learned about passion’s fickle undulations will be essential to thinking through how we might change our responses to literature to move through these sobering times. 

A friend once said to me, when I expressed my grief over this death, that any great love of literature ebbs and flows. No passion is undying. Give it time, he said. It always comes back, he said. 

Contact Emily Elotte at elotte ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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