Saturday, December 20, 2014

Soul Food for Thought


Have you ever thought of "What Books Do for the Human Soul?" Maria Popova at Brain Pickings reports on Alain De Botton and his London-based The School of Life. I reviewed his Religion for Atheists and I recall when the radio finally faded into static on the Quebec-Maine border that Layne and I listened to a radio interview podcast from the NPR show On Being where he talked about setting up a secular church of sorts (for lack of a better noun; mine, not his) where humanists could find ritual, share meaning, and make community. The SoL appears as the fruit of that, and more, as well as the the city's congenial colleagues who have formed five years ago Sunday Assembly. If Layne and I had more time or more planning in London last December, we'd have paid them a visit.

Like a church, SoL can cost. After all, teachers have to be paid. I note three SoL bibliotherapists set up sessions in person or by Skype at £80; this seems fair as I heard (what do I know these days?) the "hour" of therapists charges $200. I'd rather talk about books than myself if I had to go to a session. 

Popova by way of De Botton's endeavor sums up four main benefits for reading, free of charge. I copy them below as I find them a useful summation. You may want to visit their video, and their site.
  2. It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.
  4. Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.
    Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.
  6. We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…
  8. All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media…
Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.

I think I can use these in teaching, and in my own application of literature. Where I work, I am now the only regular full-time faculty member in the liberal arts, so it's getting difficult to claim my turf, or to find any colleagues to talk to about my interests. So, I turn more and more to the virtual realm to stay in touch with those who think and ponder and debate Big Questions for a living, or what's more important still, for leisure or the reflection that the liberal arts are supposed to free us up to pursue.

Photo: nearly every image in a search for "bibliotherapy" is female, and young. Nearly all for "reading" are cartoon owls and babies, or not-babies, but female, and young. So, this instead, a snapshot of the writer as slightly younger (4 years ago) man, and of a not young, not female, reader, undergoing therapy by sustenance and by reading the NYT Book Review in my happy place, near Mount Hermon, in California north of Santa Cruz. More fun than a $200 "hour," at least one that a shrink might provide. How other happiness might cost $200/hour best left to "reflection."

No comments: