Reasons to persevere with seemingly impenetrable 'great' works

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 9:32am


How to Do Things with Fictions

by Joshua Landy

Oxford University Press


Stephen Abell

Everyone has an example of novels dutifully but uncomprehendingly battled. Joshua Landy, a Stanford French professor, asks if it's really necessary to plough through "notoriously difficult works of fiction" if they give no pleasure.

His answer is simple: complicated literature (like vegetables) is good for you. He believes certain texts help train our minds. "Each work, in other words, contains within itself a manual for reading, a set of implicit instructions on how it may best be used."

His examples come from "five countries, and two and a half millennia": Plato's Gorgias and Symposium, Mark's gospel, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a sonnet by Stephane Mallarme, and the novel trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett. Landy dubs these works "formative fictions", because they form and shape the reader by incorporating lessons about reading itself.


Landy is at his best as a close reader when he is examining Mark's gospel. The reading of Mark focuses on the "Parable of the Sower" in which the metaphor of sowing seeds is used to explain why religious messages do not always flourish: some fall on fertile ground, some on rocky etc). Landy seeks to explain why Jesus actually admits he does not want to convert everybody who listens to him. "For those outside, everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven."

Why would Jesus not want sinners to be forgiven? Landy's answer is that the understanding of metaphorical language is essential to faith itself. As he triumphantly concludes: "The Sower is a meta-parable, a parable about parables, a parable that only indirectly concerns the kingdom of God, being focused, rather, on the ability to handle figurative language."

Elsewhere, we are readily convinced Chaucer is parodying didacticism in The Nun's Priest's Tale and Plato is undermining Socrates by giving him weak arguments so that the reader will learn about the perils of flawed thinking.

If we persist in reading complicated books for something more than their plot, Landy has at least given us a series of thoughtful and persuasive reasons for doing so.

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