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