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Know Thy Shelf

Meghan Thomassen | Thursday, November 29, 2012

After years spent trying to justify my love of literature, I finally had that moment. It was an elusive but completely satisfactory second of pure realization and vindication. When I read Martha Nussbaum’s essays on “Cultivating Humanity,” it was like God had rolled back the sky like a scroll, reached down and stuck a big “OK” stamp on my English degree.
Martha Nussbaum is a liberal humanist who tackles the influence of literature, but without the alienating academic garble. She is one of us. She doesn’t use words like “solipsism” or “autolatrist.” Her sentences are reasonably sized and don’t abuse the comma like it’s her job (ahem, Hemingway).
Nussbaum’s chapter on “Narrative Imagination” highlights how everything we love about books can actually work for the greater good. For Nussbaum, the imagination is vital in order to be a cultivated citizen of the world. As Aristotle wrote in his “Poetics,” literature shows us “not something that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen.” But Nussbaum theorizes that literature doesn’t just show us what might happen, but what should happen.
Think about all the times you sat on the edge of your seat, enraptured by whatever book you’re reading. You tune out the world, shun your friends and maybe even deny yourself proper hygiene, all because you just have to know what happens. John Grisham and Nora Roberts have turned this kind of suspenseful writing, be it mysterious or romantic, into a very comfortable livelihood, but that does not discredit the theory behind their success.
Nussbaum says imagination makes readers invest themselves in characters and “inspires intense concern with the fate of characters and defines those characters as containing a rich inner life.” It doesn’t take much for an author to imply what a character’s inner landscape looks like.
Gandalf doesn’t say much to Bilbo, but when he does, he reveals centuries of wisdom and fathoms of power behind that kindly, old-school façade. Elinor Dashwood spends the majority of “Sense and Sensibility” worrying and writing letters, but when Edward finally gets down on one knee, Austen captures mountains of anguish in one, uninhibited cry.
When something happens to the characters you’ve grown attached to, whether it’s Severus Snape, despite Harry’s judgment, or Scarlett O’Hara, even though she’s a self-centered princess, you feel an overwhelming sensation of justice, especially if you think your character has been wronged. Who didn’t fling “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” across the room when (spoiler alert) Snape died? Who didn’t raise their hand in solidarity when Scarlett swore that she “would never go hungry again?”
You’ve never met these people. You’ve never encountered a situation like theirs. And yet your values are being put to the test with each new reading. By inciting your compassion or righteous rage, literature does something to you. It puts you through a highly specified and refining experience, one that can be recreated, reinterpreted and shared for years and years to come.
This was the essence of the Greek tragedy. To watch “Oedipus Rex” or “Antigone” is to experience cruel fate and injustice firsthand. The Greeks saw value in these cathartic visits to the theater because it plumbs each spectator’s moral virtues and normalizes the crowd’s response.
If adequately skilled, the playwright cannot only identify and induce a common emotion, but can also teach what the spectator’s proper reaction should be. Obviously, Nussbaum’s understanding of literature is nothing new. Works like “Animal Farm” and anything from the Irish nationalist theater will attest to that.
But for everyday people who aren’t facing major political conflicts, Nussbaum calls attention to what we read and how it normalizes our actions. This doesn’t mean we should only read what we agree with. That would only lead to complacent, uninformed value systems that would crumble at any outward challenge.
If written correctly, a book can help you recognize, understand, and respect other people. Unless, of course, you’re a solipsist.
Contact Meghan Thomassen at mthomass@nd.edu.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.  

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Know Thy Shelf

Meghan Thomassen | Monday, November 12, 2012

Texts, emails, tweets, Facebook messages, snapchats, pings, letters, pokes, iMessage – which one doesn’t belong? It doesn’t take an SAT whiz to figure this one out. Letters don’t seem to fit into our modern landscape of communication.
This is an unfortunate side effect of our efficient, economic, environmentally-friendly new system of email and instant messaging. Letters are an intensely personal and cathartic way to develop and deepen relationships. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing to your sister on the other side of the country or to the cutie in organic chemistry. Sitting down and putting pen to paper is the next best thing to a face-to-face conversation.
Not only does writing down your thoughts help organize and clarify how you want to say something, it also helps you understand what you are trying to say. People talk about how they sometimes compose angry emails to vent. That annoyance doesn’t seem so important once you actually see your complaint composed on paper. Letters force us to really consider what we are putting into words. Typed, instant messages are more likely to be regretted. Letters provide the same release without the danger of the “send” button accidentally clicked. They can be revised, restructured and reworded to fit the message you’re trying to send.
Perhaps the most important part about writing letters is the stationery. Letters give people the excuses to obsess over stores like Papyrus and Hallmark. Calligraphy pens and cardstock letterheads beckon like catnip. Sending a letter lets your personalize your signature in more ways than one.
Letters are also a wonderful form of memorabilia, a record for you to look back on. When you’re feeling sentimental, what sounds more appealing: scrolling through a litany of texts and abbreviations on a tiny screen, or keeping important letters to frame on your wall or tucked into your journal? Most Notre Dame students probably have their acceptance letters still tacked on their bulletin boards. Cards from grandparents, love letters from deceased spouses and notes scrawled by a marker-wielding kindergartener decorate refrigerators and living room walls. When we’re dead and gone, will our children spend hours ticking through tweets to figure our what their parents were like? Or will they have physical heirlooms of our intellect, sentiment and personality?
Is there any delight greater than waiting for a letter? The delayed gratification increases the importance of the message and makes it more of a gift. When someone opens their mailbox to find a letter, they usually perk up and think, “I wonder who it’s from?” When someone notices they have yet another email in their inbox, they usually groan and think, “Why do these people keep bothering me?” Envelopes even look like gifts. Here’s a letter, wrapped, signed, sealed, delivered and all just for you.
So here’s a little lesson about writing a letter, for those of you have never trotted to Hammes-Mowbray to buy postage stamps. When you’re trying to make a romantic gesture, you don’t shoot your significant other an e-card. You don’t send a potential employer a text, “Hey! Thanx 4 the gr8 interview!” While formal letters are something of a societal antique (alas!) there’s something classy, sophisticated and memorable about a composition. So, take a minute and jot down a note to your mom, your dad, your boyfriend, your roommate, your grandparent, your mentor or anyone who has been on your mind. If you’re abroad, make everyone on campus jealous and send a postcard from your latest day trip. Just remember this: Writing a letter breaks your message away from the mundane blitzkrieg of electronic overload and shows that you are far more mature, considerate and classy than the lucky recipient of your letter ever imagined.

Contact  Meghan Thomassen at
mthomass@nd.edu
The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
 

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The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.

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Know Thy Shelf

Meghan Thomassen | Thursday, November 8, 2012

With the election this week, it would be remiss to neglect one of the greatest American popular historical authors of our time: David McCullough.
Biographers like McCullough not only know how to write, but also meet the challenge of portraying America’s history in a way that is engaging, enlightening and truthful.
Perhaps the best modern biography today, McCullough’s “Truman” (1992) won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. McCullough took every step to understand Truman better – he literally reenacted the president’s daily morning walk around Independence, Mo. The book won a Pulitzer and HBO turned it into a movie.
“What I demand is accuracy for the sake of imagination,” he said in an interview with the New York Times in 1992.
The Yale graduate stands out for his thorough research and uncanny ability to bring historical figures to life. Charming and eye-opening anecdotes from letters and diaries give subjects like Truman and John Adams a modern voice and modern relevance. McCullough, who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a civilian, in 2006, said he wrote “Truman” in response to what he viewed as shallow political debate.
“I felt that something needed to be said before people made a choice,” he said. “This book is about the country, not just about Harry Truman. It’s about who we are and what we can be.”
Even though his books can be found at Barnes and Noble, don’t mistake McCullough for just another trade fiction sensation. McCullough writes American life through the details that made up our forefathers’ past. While this usually means his tomes sometimes reach 1,000 pages, the story is well worth it. McCullough reportedly read every page of “Truman” aloud to his wife to make sure it sounded like he was talking to his readers. McCullough also won the Pulitzer Prize for his non-fiction book, “John Adams” (2001), which was one of the fastest-selling non-fiction books in history. HBO made it into a mini-series starring Paul Giamatti, which is worth any history buff’s free time. McCullough’s writing is definitely well-informed, but he manages to stay away from pedantic plodding through history. He instead populates what would be dull records and lists with the most important part of historical study: the people. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that movements, events, rallies, bills, wars and treaties aren’t just documents. They’re spurred by intensely dynamic and painfully human individuals.
Not only does this make politics enormously complicated, it also makes history heart-stopping and dramatic.
Even though the confetti probably still lies on the ground in Chicago, it’s strange to think: What will historians write about President Barack Obama? What parts of the election last night would McCullough include if he were to write “Obama”? Would this be the doom-and-gloom chapter? Or the tipping point for a new golden age in American history?
“History is the story of people,” McCullough said. Now more than ever, Americans are cognizant of how just one person can change the historical landscape.
Contact Meghan Thomassen at
mthomass@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.