Heather Nolen, “The wise man reads both books and life itself”

September 19, 2011 in Essay

This post has been written by Heather Nolen, a high school English teacher with a special interest in British history and literature under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence. Her blog, covering Austen, Shakespeare and other authors, may be found at http://wanderingbarkhumanities.wordpress.com/ and takes as its point of departure the idea that humanities is in danger of losing its way as a field.

From an early age, I’ve always loved books. In my pre-adolescent years, I loved devouring series novels and waiting for the next one to come out so I could get the next piece of the story. Now, as an adult, I love the sight of them on my shelf, I love the smell of the old book glue in the antique books I collect; I love reading them and not only learning things about myself, but so many things about the world around me.

Lately, though, as anyone would notice, the world around me is changing; no longer are books things one must lug about, or wet one’s fingers to turn the pages. Books are available everywhere in our new virtual world, via the world wide web or various e-readers. With the increased availability of books, that means there is an increased availability of knowledge; never before has a society been able to be so autodidactic. Not only can one read all forms of literature online, but also summaries, analyses, and criticism of that literature. This increased access to knowledge has created a proverbial vortex in which our lives have become mixed with the literature we love to read.

One of my literary loves is Jane Austen. I love her wit, use of irony, intrusion into her characters’ thoughts, and just the absolute faithfulness with which she presented the society in which she lived. Now, I don’t have just her novels lining my shelves; I have a hyper-concordance wherein, should I be absent from my shelf or just simply not want to flip through the book, I can search for one name or word in any one of her novels. Not only that, but there is also the Republic of Pemberley, a site that provides exhaustive information about Jane, her life and times, and her works – all at the stroke of a key. What ever did we do before the advent of this cornucopia of potential knowledge?

And then there’s Shakespeare. Oh, Will. I’ve loved him ever since I discovered in high school that I could just understand his writing without help. Unlike so many of my classmates, I got it. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’ve ever settled for my own perspective on his works. After my high school introduction, I took one class at university that lumped him in with Milton and Chaucer, another specifically focused on his tragedies. Then, after earning my degree, I went on to take a continuing education course at a different university that focused on other plays. My point is that varied perspectives enhance our understanding of all literary works. Again, we cue the world wide web with all its latent intellectual bounty. Sites like Open Shakespeare not only present his works in their entirety, but also offer critical introductions, and a Will-ophile like myself can find virtually anything necessary to learn more about Shakespeare – or to use when presenting his works to my ever virtually-evolving students.

So, what’s the point? Well, first, there is no reason not to take advantage of the virtual yet very real wealth of information at our fingertips. Second, if one is, as Lin Yutang said, to be wise and “read both books and life itself,” then we – bibliophiles and literary types, as a microcosm of a greater society – must be prepared for a paradigm shift. No longer are we wetting fingers or staining fingers with ink in order to push through to that paper or submission deadline; we are callousing fingertips and crouching over a screen that leads us all, students and teachers, to a “brave new world, / That has such people in’t!”

2 responses to Heather Nolen, “The wise man reads both books and life itself”

  1. Your last paragraph about bibliophiles having to move with the times made me wondered whether the shift in the way we study literature that you identify in this article has any precedents. The only possible candidate that I can think of is the move from scrolls to printed books. In some ways, the internet may be returning us to the ‘scroll era’: we unroll web pages, each page is so malleable that it can appear exactly as its owner wants it to (just as scrolls were ornamented), and we can also annotate and comment web pages in the same way that an annotated scroll would pass from one monk’s hands to another…

  2. You’re absolutely right that we all have to change with the times. I found my e-reader to be an incredible disappointment. Not only was the interface clumsy and distracting from the enjoyment of the book, but the pricing of books on an e-reader sometimes offers no advantage to that of buying an actual book. Why would I pay the same price for an electronic version of something I can never loan out or share? Like any new technology e-readers have both benefits and drawbacks. I will use my e-reader to download PDF files (although it is poor at displaying those as well) and free books, but keep buying regular old books for most of my reading. I just ordered an old book about rocket propulsion that is a wonderful science book!

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