When I tell people that I read a lot, and that what I read is usually prose written before the last century (though not all of course), I sometimes get the question, "are you taking a class?" To keep it simple I answer "no, I just like to read." The usual comeback I get is "why?" Why indeed!
Usually people are tied up in their busy lives to take a break and enjoy the pleasure of literature. I don't blame them. They do what they know. And if they "really" want to know what's going on in the world, they'll turn on the cable news talking heads, watch the latest blockbuster smash-fest, or veg out to the latest episode of big brothers dancing with stars on a island. They do what they know, but it is unfortunate.
But if the person who asks me "why" really wanted to understand their lives, society, politics, war, death, or life, it would always serve one to look into the wells of literature. I was reminded of this as I took in the election coverage last night, thinking to myself nothing new is under the sun. The political sound bites, the manipulative cant, the cable commentary, has already been done to death a thousand times before, and offers me no real wisdom regarding the state of our union, or the character of the nation. (Though it does provide plenty of easily ridculed personalites.) I think it's simply beyond the grasp of news-makers, who sole purpose is to report any story that garners the most attention (regardless of accuracy or honesty), thereby increasing their bottom-line commercial ad-revenue.
So, I was pleased this morning to come across an essay by Mark Edmundson on William Blake's poem London and what it can tell us about ourselves, today in America. From the beginning,
Sometimes you need some help to see what's directly in front of you: It's often the most difficult thing to see. Looking for a compressed vision of the state of America now, I'm inclined to turn not to any of our esteemed journalist-pundits or renowned public intellectuals but in the direction of the poet William Blake, who did his work 200 years ago.
If he were to recast "London," probably his best-known poem, for the uses of the present, he might be inclined to retitle it "New York" or "Washington" and update some of the diction. Other than that, I'm not sure that he would have to change all that much. Grandly, shockingly, the poem reveals us to ourselves.
Though I don't agree with everything in the essay, I encourage you to read the full piece. It is well worth taking the time to think it over. And maybe, just maybe, next time you want to get the low down on the latest "thing that's happening", instead of turning on the idiot box, maybe consider turning to a novel or poem that has lasted beyond it's moment, which may tell us more about ours lives than any pundit can profer. Doing so can bring pleasures that our social media complex can only dream of.