“This above all: to thine own self be true,”
– William Shakespeare, tattoo located on multiple ankles, legs, and chests, graduation speech advice.
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I-/I took the one less traveled by/ and that has made all the difference”
– Robert Frost, motivational bumper sticker/ironic wilderness sign text.
“and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
– James Joyce, shirt worn by a senior after a trip to Ireland
This post was semi-inspired by an article I read on Book Riot titled “Book Riot’s Favorite Sentences”. What followed was a wonderful list of poignant sentences from a conglomerate of authors.
That being said, lists like this bother the shit out of me. Yes, the more that people read beautiful language the more they may be inclined to check out more sentences written by the author of said beautiful language, but a list of favorite sentences pushes literature closer and closer to “top ten ” -esque thinking. Need something to tweet out to your friends? Head on over to Book Riot’s favorite sentences. Literature has already done the thinking for you! Mad at your mom? Carve some Sylvia Plath onto your thigh and call it a day.
Obviously Book Riot isn’t the problem – the site is directed towards readers and these are sentences that were selected by those who contribute to the site – but the way in which classic authors become pigeonholed into dead white Buddha’s is troubling to say the least. Shakespeare did not write Hamlet to help remind you that you need to be yourself when times get tough and Polonius sure as shit was not the paradigm of the value he spouted. It is easy to forget that Shakespeare did not have a motivational speech gig where he ladled out life lessons to a depraved audience. And it is even more difficult to remember the context of the advice within the play (Polonius spying on his son, Polonius spying on Hamlet and his mom, Polonius’ death being met with crowds muttering ‘finally’), so what you get is a world where the basic understanding of a play/character/figure is perpetuated as words to live by.
Thanks, Frost for spelling this out..
The problem is in looking to literature to solve problems and a lot of it has to do with the way we teach the subject of English in schools. The AP and most upper level courses ask students to read a novel or a poem as something that looks to argue some sort of profoundly worded moral. I cannot tell you how many times I have read the sentence, “What Frost is trying to say is that…” to be followed by a hardline interpretation that leaves no room for complexity. We teach students to argue a side (an acknowledgment that other sides exist) and to stubbornly hang on to that interpretation as law. At its worst, once that message is “discovered”, the message turns into a form of advice about the world rather than an acknowledgment of perspective. Students begin to break one of those cardinal rules of literature (author does not equal character) and the whole thing goes to hell. Ideas get distilled, labels get perpetuated, Sparknotes prevails.
Literature shouldn’t solve our problems – if anything, it should amplify them. Reading is hard, books are hard, and anything that can be deduced down to a common denominator should be examined more carefully. I don’t read because I am wayward and need to learn how to live my life – one of the many reasons I read is because life can become far too insulated too easily. Routine, work, location, and hobbies do a damn good job of creating a bubble/echo chamber – they help to confirm that I am, in fact, the center of the entire universe. Reading at its most fundamental level helps as best as it can to remove me from my situation, to show that life is something for everyone else, and to work at making me less selfish and more human. It makes the world more challenging, aligns itself with the unquantifiable, and does nothing easily at all.
Save advice for self-help books and graduation speeches and, if you must snag quotes from Goliath works of fiction, make sure you are aware that it is a woman’s declarative climax (literally..) and not a minimalist shirt affirming your love for Joyce.