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Review: Arnold Weinstein’s “The Lives of Literature”

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“His culminating chapter is a love letter from his heart of his life spent in literature, his life as it matured for himself, and he has given himself and his favorite books to us to discover afresh and anew.”

“We go to literature because it houses human lives.” So writes Arnold Weinstein in his hybrid memoir-criticism pilgrimage of a life spent in books. I have written that the “unread life isn’t worth living.” In opening the pages of books, we find characters and faces so near yet so distant, some real, other imaginary. Yet they touch our lives. Why? Literature does not just house human lives. Literature often houses our own lives in some manner and allows us to encounter new lives—and perhaps become those lives—in the pages we open and turn through.

Arnold Weinstein’s book comes at a time when the humanities is suffering in the department of public perception. The triumph of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), which Weinstein does mention in his book, garners all the prestige. In our hectic busy-busy-busy lives that are always on the move, whether physically from one place to the next or digitally from one app to another, books are often an afterthought. Not enough time for that is the common thought that glances through most minds. Weinstein, however, argues the opposite; books give us time that has been stolen from us by the pillars of modernity: “We enter the bookstore, see all the books arrayed there, and think: so many books, so little time; but the truth goes the other way: books do not take time, they give time.”

The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing is a unique book. As mentioned, it is part memoir and part literary criticism. The story being told is Arnold Weinstein’s. Yet in opening the pages of a book about (and by) Arnold Weinstein, we find ourselves in him, and we become him in this journey through the pages of a personal, and literary, odyssey. This, I believe, is the majesty of reading—and I think Weinstein agrees. We find ourselves in books; we also become others in books.

In a touching short scene early in his life, Weinstein reflects on a young English teacher who proclaimed Shelley and Keats as “hot stuff.” The language the teacher used was active: “is hot stuff,” not “was hot stuff.” The implication was subtle but transformative: Shelley and Keats were still alive even long after they had died. I too love Shelley and Keats. “Ozymandias” is one of my favorite poems, and I had an entire chapter devoted to Keats in my book covering a brief pilgrimage of literature. Now that I am a little bit older, though perhaps still far away from our author’s place on the road of time (though I hope to one day get to where he is), I can look back at these little episodes and see parallels. I was an AP/Honors English student in high school, a favorite, I can now say safely, of my teacher. She lent me a couple of her personal books. This little act of kindness, as well as encouragement, undoubtedly sparked part of my life’s trajectory into public literary criticism (though I did not know it at the time and despite the fact that my degrees are in history, religious studies, and philosophy). In reading about Weinstein’s little moment with a high school English teacher so exuberant and enthusiastic about his “job,” I saw myself in a brilliant flash of ecstatic memory of the better side of my snotnose high school self. 

The charm of Weinstein’s book is how it is replete with such moments. I am not Arnold Weinstein. You are not Arnold Weinstein. Yet in another sense: I am Arnold Weinstein, and you are Arnold Weinstein. Every human being, by account of being human, will find himself at some point along Weinstein’s gripping and spellbinding memoir of his life. Maybe it is not the moments of literature but the moments of budding romance and love, like with he and his wife café bouncing in Germany and getting married in the midst of a global crisis (the Cuban Missile Crisis at the time). Maybe it is the frustrations in teaching if you are like him, a professor. Or maybe it is the moments that he reflects on students—some his own, others from colleagues he observed—and how a class, or teacher, changed your appreciation of something you previously disregarded as boring and unimportant. Maybe it is just the life of reminiscing as one ages and looks back with memories of the life lived.

But this book is more than finding ourselves in Weinstein’s witty memoir. It is a work of literary criticism. Weinstein wrestles with some of the seminal writers we either have heard of and probably even read at some point in our lives. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, among others, dot the pilgrimage of Weinstein’s life and, where appropriate, he devotes time to discussing these writers, their works, their characters, their meanings.

While we may know how certain stories end, we do not know how our story ends. Other than, of course, the morgue. But this was once the ecstatic exhilaration of literature. Picking up a book for the first time we did not know the character or how the story would end. Weinstein is inviting us to pick up a book for the first time or pick up a book for a second, third, fourth, or fifth time and discover something new. We still do not know how the story will end as we tread new ground in familiar pages, but we discover something altogether new though the words are the same.

I often tell students, especially those who have a love of literature or are majoring in English, that one of the advantages of reading a book again is how it will speak to you differently this time, how you will uncover and walk a different road—a different story—within the story you thought you read and knew. As Weinstein so poetically summarized, “We’re never through discovering who we are.” His work, then, invites us to read again, read afresh, read anew. We may be surprised at the new story we find in reading a story we thought we knew.

Weinstein’s culminating chapter is “Literature and the Cost of Knowing.” Here our illustrious bard offers the best of popular literary criticism that no doubt makes those snuffy and puffy elitist colleagues of his look down their noses at him. As he reflected earlier, in his early years at Brown University, there is—and all of us who have been through the university can detect it to—a sense of elitism among the professoriate. The “great unwashed masses” are not their concern. “We happy few,” of the graduate seminar and the prospective doctoral student are their concern. Our author, thankfully, is moved with the heart that all great literature is moved: the heart of love; he is reaching out to more than just the graduate seminar literature student.

His culminating chapter is a love letter from his heart of his life spent in literature, his life as it matured for himself, and he has given himself and his favorite books to us to discover afresh and anew. As I write this review, I have just finished a draft of an essay on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights focusing on the destructive love of Heathcliff and Catherine, just as Weinstein focuses in on the “horror” of “knowing.” Chalk up another moment, as Weinstein discusses Brontë’s exceptional novel, of finding myself in Weinstein’s life and work and becoming him in that moment. And if you happen to have a fondness for that tale of Heathcliff, Catherine Earnshaw, Cathy Linton, and Hareton Earnshaw, you might do yourself well to read Weinstein’s book just for his reflection on the dark sublimity set in the Welsh moors (or, perhaps, his reflection on William Faulkner and Toni Morrison’s Beloved which may well cause the reader to pick up again or pick up for the first time).

In an age when literature and the humanities is often a backseat concern, Weinstein’s powerful book keeps us human through the human faces and stories of his own life and the stories of the books that have shaped his life (and possibly our own lives). The Lives of Literature is a testament to all that is good about the humanities and the human condition. If Matthew Arnold’s definition of a classic—which I share—is that it is “the best that has been thought and said” about the human condition, we find in The Lives of Literature a pilgrim scholar giving us his “best that has been thought and said” about the importance of picking up and reading and how it relates to the human condition. Reading The Lives of Literature will keep you human. And in an age of dehumanization, that is oh so important. Tolle lege.

Paul Krause is the editor at VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He can be found on Twitter @Paul_jKrause

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