Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Love of Literature and the Literary Order

Studies such as “Loving Literature: A Cultural History”  by Deidre Shauna Lynch, as discussed by Joshua Rothman, can provide part of the story of literature as a spontaneous order. The literary order is of course made up of writers reading other writers, but it is also made up of readers who are reading those writers for a variety of reasons. What is viewed as the dominant reason to read has changed over the years, decades, and centuries, just as the ways people have experienced literature has changed with changing technologies. Most experiences with literature involved oral storytelling prior to the printing press and the subsequent push for widespread literacy. And things changed yet again with the development of cinema, television, VCRs, DVDs, and the Internet. With the ability to record and watch TV shows over and over, TV shows have become increasingly complex in their storytelling, for example.

Something that particularly jumped out at me was an institutional change that had widespread ramifications for reading. Lynch argues that people used to take a more "rhetorical" approach to reading, insofar as people read to learn how to write and speak well. One read poetry for information and arguments, for a good quote on a topic. But eventually, this changed.
The invention that disrupted this rhetorical world was the canon. “Canon formation,” as literary historians call it, started in the mid-eighteenth century for all kinds of reasons, among them a rising interest in taste and connoisseurship, and, in Britain, a rethinking of copyright law. (In 1774, in Donaldson v. Beckett, British judges rejected the system of perpetual copyright in favor of the “public domain”; one consequence was a new notion that the great, enduring books belonged to all Britons.) The growth of the canon changed how people related to literature. It shifted the temporal focus of literary life from the present to the past; it made reading intrinsically nostalgic.
There was, of course, a canon before this time. There was a literary tradition, after all. There were writers the educated would of course read, and there were writers that other writers in particular read. Homer was in the canon before this conscious development of the canon. But the historical development of it in a more conscious way is itself interesting, particularly in its relationship to the rejection of "perpetual copyright." By freeing certain books from copyright, more books could be published, meaning more books could be read. The cost of books decreased, meaning people could now afford to read for leisure. And this led to love of literature.

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