Why read? Chris Else

The Torchlight List 
Jim Flynn
Awa Press, $33.00,
ISBN 9780958291699


The world is going to hell in a handcart in so many ways that if you are over 55, you’re inclined to throw up your hands in despair, hide in a corner with a paper bag over your head and just let them get it over with. “Them”, of course, includes the younger generation who are, as we know, a big part of the problem.

Like every generation in the past, this one is inferior to the one that went before it. Symptomatic of their degenerate condition is the fact that they don’t read, a state of affairs that leads to ignorance and atrophy of the mental faculties. They are submersed in a culture of relentless visual and auditory stimulation that leaves no time for reflection, and results in impoverished vocabularies and, arguably, values that are narrow and unexamined. Right?

Jim Flynn thinks so. He quotes studies to demonstrate how modern American teenagers understand the working vocabulary of their parents but don’t use it themselves. He recounts how students, whether they’re from Canterbury, Otago or Cornell, read no fiction other than “airport trash”, and how his younger academic colleagues are little better, reading nothing outside their professional disciplines.

He contrasts this with his parents’ generation, who loved to read and, despite having no formal schooling, thus became well-informed and highly educated. Reading is the road to personal liberation, an understanding of the world and, thereby, a sense of social responsibility.

The Torchlight List is Flynn’s attempt to set all our feet on this straight path. It consists of some 200 “great books”, including a handful of plays and movies, which are intended to open our eyes to the joys of literature and the complexities of the modern world.

His project resembles that of C W Eliot, president of Harvard University, who, at the beginning of last century, claimed that anyone could obtain a liberal education by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf. There were 51 volumes comprising just over 100 titles in Eliot’s anthology, just over half the number in Flynn’s.

The two lists have other differences, only some of which are explained by the century between their formulations. Eliot included many works from the past, from the Greeks and Romans, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and also a wide range of subjects from philosophy and science through religion, poetry and folk tales. Flynn, by contrast, includes almost nothing written before 1800. He lists one volume of poetry (a selection of Pablo Neruda) and one of philosophy (Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy). His science consists of a dozen works, mostly devoted to cosmology and evolution. He has one book on the classical world, one on the history of language and one on the decipherment of Linear B (Bronze-age Greek script). For the most part, he offers novels, with a sprinkling of biography, history and drama.

More noteworthy is Flynn’s arrangement of the bulk of his titles by geographical region. There are 57 works of American history and society (one of the curious features of the book is that, despite being published by a small New Zealand press, it is aimed explicitly at a US audience), 15 devoted to South America, 22 to Britain and its empire, 33 to Germany, France and Russia, 16 to Spain, Portugal, Italy and Scandinavia, six to Africa and 22 to China, Japan, India and the Middle East.

In contrast, there are 18 books on science and civilisation and a further 13, spread over three short sections, that are devoted to “the human condition”. The focus of these sections is the exposition and rational justification of what Flynn calls “humane ideals”, an attempt to counter the ennui and moral paralysis that characterised much of 20th-century intellectual life. Here, in what I found the most significant part of the book, Flynn slips from a discursive commentary on his listed works and offers his own thoughts on an important and pressing ethical problem.

Overall, his project highlights interesting questions about the nature of literature and reading. Does literature have a purpose? And, if so, is that purpose to educate the reader?

Flynn answers as a pedagogue. He thinks that following his reading programme will make you a better person and that the world will be a better place as a result. Perhaps, if enough people followed his prescription, the human race could be rescued from its grim fate. Education is his aim and a particular kind of education, too. He wants us to understand the world from a historical, social and political perspective.

What then of the pure pleasure of a good book? Flynn gives full value to this but it is unclear whether the pleasure is the sweetener by which the medicine of knowledge is administered or whether the ambition to educate oneself through Flynn’s programme will also deliver the additional, surprise benefit of enjoyment.

In his essay Why Bother? Jonathan Franzen contemplates a problem similar to Flynn’s. Franzen, too, sees a decline in general literacy, which manifests itself in a shrinking audience for the kind of book he wants to write. Does anybody care? Is it all a waste of time? In an attempt to find his lost audience, he set himself the task of trying to connect to American society as a whole, an exercise that led, inevitably, to alienation and depression.

His return from the abyss began with a chance meeting with Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist, who was studying the audience for serious fiction in America. Heath had discovered that this audience was made up of two groups. One consisted of people who were readers by habit. They were brought up with books in environments that valued reading. The other group, which intersected with the first and which contained the most dedicated readers, consisted of people who, in some sense, felt isolated from the world around them and for whom literature represented membership of a community of the imagination. Such people draw from their reading what is tantamount to religious affirmation. To quote Franzen quoting Heath:

This is … what readers are saying: reading fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of a religious text … “Reading makes me a better person … . [It] enables me to maintain a sense of something substantive – my ethical integrity, my intellectual integrity.”

Franzen’s depression only lifted when he recognised that in trying to connect with what he saw as the real world of American society he was going in the wrong direction. As writer and reader, he belonged to Heath’s second group. He needed to accept his estrangement:

How could I not feel estranged? I was a reader. My nature had been waiting for me all along, and now it welcomed me. All of a sudden I became aware of how hungry I was to construct and inhabit an imagined world. How could I have thought I needed to cure myself in order to fit into the “real” world? I didn’t need curing, and the world didn’t either; the only thing that needed curing was my understanding of my place in it.

Such a view seems diametrically opposed to Flynn’s. Those of us who are readers in Franzen’s sense of the word don’t go to literature to find out about something. We engage in it for its own sake in order to inhabit that imaginary world. The odd ambiguity in Flynn’s approach derives from the fact that while he acknowledges this perspective he also wants to take a functional view and emphasise the beneficial effects of literature on the individual and on society.

One wonders how many people who do not already crave what the late Nigel Cox called “fictionland” will be turned on to it by Flynn’s programme. On the other hand, those who are already members of the community of readers are not likely to warm to a Cook’s tour through literature. For them, the journey will be made book by book, tracing an intuitive and individual path of self-discovery.

What, then, of the third group, implicit in Heath’s scheme – the non-readers? It seems to me that if the aim is to educate people into the ways of the world and an appreciation of humane values, then watching good movies, such as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others or Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, may be just as effective as reading any novel.

I also think that, through such means as the internet and social networking media, today’s young people are better informed and, possibly, more ethically sensitive than I was at age 15. The world may be doomed but it is not the fault of the young.


Chris Else is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

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Posted in Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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