Read any good books lately?

Author: John Monczunski

The declining interest in reading is a cause of concern for Mark Roche, Notre Dame’s dean of Arts and Letters. His new book, Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century, published by Yale University Press, makes the case that great literature is being neglected today even though it is needed more than ever. Among other things, we recently asked the scholar of German literature why he believes that to be so and what does Liberty Valance have to do with all this any way?

Notre Dame Magazine: So why does literature matter in the 21st century? And why did you feel the need to write a book that defends the importance of great literature? It doesn’t seem like something that should need defending.

Mark Roche: No, but, in fact, literature is under attack on several different fronts today. On a societal level reading in general is less popular. Just after I finished my book, the National Endowment for the Arts published its study “Reading at Risk,” and its main finding was that every age group is reading less now than ever. People today no longer spend time with literary works partly because of the huge investment in video culture.

Also, we live in the Age of Technology and that has had a profound impact shaping our idea of what matters. And there is an increasing sense in our society that what matters are “instrumental ends.” Something is valuable only in its utility in gaining something else. There’s a failure to recognize intrinsic value, value for its own sake, which is central to art; the idea of intrinsic value has receded in importance.

There has also been neglect at universities. In most literature departments less attention is now paid to great literary works. Many scholars today are interested more in the cultural and historical context surrounding the literary work rather than the work itself. Was the author African American? Gay? Female? People are now as likely to study fashion or cookbooks or the publishing industry in the Weimar Republic as they are the literary works of that era. This shift is an example of technology’s effect. It has to do with literature in its “instrumental” context. “What is reading being used for?” is a question that dominates.

Finally, there is an over-arching interest in theory. Many faculty prefer to teach essays and books on culture, society and literature instead of the great works of literature themselves. I don’t want to overstate the case, but to some degree I believe literature is being neglected today.

NDM: So why does that matter?

Roche: Great literature has important things to say to us in our age. In a world driven by technology, literature can give us a much-needed counter experience to that world. I think there are three tremendous challenges facing our age. One is the environmental crisis, another is the relation of wealthy nations to poor nations, and finally there is the ethical crisis stemming from a breakdown of traditional values, new developments in science and technology, and globalization. Great literature can offer perspectives on all these issues.

NDM: If you had to limit it to a few, what serious contemporary literary works would you say have the most relevance to current problems? This is, of course, an impossible question.

Roche: Yes, it’s a difficult question. I would put it this way: There are certainly many fine contemporary works that are relevant. For example, Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach is a very interesting rendition of the utopian genre that takes into account the challenges of the environment. But I would argue as well that there are works from earlier ages that have just as much relevance. The works of Sophocles, Goethe and Kafka are as important and meaningful as when they were written. One mark of great literature is that it is transhistorical, that is, “for the ages.” Great fiction that addresses contentment with less, that elevates friendship over materialism, that treats clashes between and within cultures, that deals with inequality in society, all would be of relevance no matter when they were written.

NDM: Do you think the role of the “literary prophet,” such as George Orwell in 1984, is of increasing importance in our age?

Roche: There is this notion that artists’ depictions are more real than everyday reality because ours are scattered, uninformed, unfocused. Hegel gets at this idea when he says that a great portrait can be more like the individual than the real individual himself. The painter captures the essence, the deeper reality. So too with literary artists, they may present reality more clearly. And as problems in our society become more severe, and our actions have effects over great distances and time, the need for the poet as prophet, the novelist as prophet becomes more acute.

One of the great things about art is that there is no “one” prophecy. There are multiple windows to solving problems through art. You mentioned 1984. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is equally prophetic, though in the opposite way. One of the works I mention in my book is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, which is a critique of the television culture. And there is a sense in this work that rather than the tyranny of a security state doing us in, we will be lulled by entertainment media into the kinds of behaviors that are at odds with our highest human potential. And it is up to the artist to remind us of our highest human potential.

NDM: Are you hopeful that reading and interest in great literature will forge a comeback?

Roche: I think there’s a real hunger for reading, but one of the problems of our age is that there are so many distractions. The popularity of book discussion groups and books on tape are good signs. Some films also enhance the popularity of great literature, such as the resurgence of interest in the work of Jane Austen resulting from all the popular films of her work.

NDM: Are there any films that you would put in the category of “great literature”?

Roche: I respect immensely the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Along with Notre Dame Professor Vittorio Hösle, I once wrote an essay on the movie for a scholarly journal. It’s a popular film but also a deep and rich work that examines the transition in culture from an age when ordinary folk were protected by heroes and acts of individual courage to a more progressive age when we are protected by institutionalized justice and due process. There’s a lament of that even as the affirmation is celebrated. I’m also a fan of other John Ford films and of Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, I think Hitchcock’s 1953 film I Confess, about a priest who hears the confession of a murderer and then, through a series of circumstances, is himself put on trial, is one of the great religious works of the 20th century.