Words and Music

A fascinating and wonderful article ran in the Guardian last week.  The author eloquently ruminates over the parallel evolution of literature and music in the 19th century, and laments a perceived divergence since the 20th.  His descriptions of the intertwined nature of the two media are divine:

To read Molly Bloom’s great gush of resigned affirmation with which Ulysses ends and then set it beside the equally self-actualising fatalism in which the final adagio movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony (marked on the score “very slowly and held back”) culminates, is to feel yourself in the presence of artistic twins whose birth is separated by only a few years.

That’s beautiful. 

However, I’m inclined to disagree with his thesis.  I don’t think novels stagnated with modernism.  The author does a disservice not only to postmodernism, which took literature to its boundaries far more so than the atonal experiments of modern classical music have done, but he seems to neglect anything in recent literature that doesn’t fall neatly into his categories.  If literature stopped evolving with, as he asserts, Joyce’s Ulysses, then what are we to make of, for example, the magic realism of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude?  Isn’t that a rich literary experiment representing a bold break with the status quo? 

Literary fiction also seems far more responsive to the nuances of genre than serious music is, though I admit I’m far less literate in music than in prose.  Still, what modern symphonies can equal, say, the quality and variety represented by the range between Slaughterhouse-Five, Lonesome Dove, and Herzog

And this is to say nothing of the comic novel.  Where in the musical pantheon is the equivalent landmark to A Confederacy of Dunces

This is not to belittle the greatness of music, including contemporary music, but I still feel that this article fails to do the depth of innovation in recent literature justice.

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Five Recent Articles on Literacy

It seems that as technology becomes an ever-increasing mainstay in more areas of our lives, the effect on our already-faltering literacy has been similarly stark, and it becomes a continually obsessive interest of written commentary.  Or maybe I’ve just been paying more attention over time. 

Here are a few things that seem especially relevant from recent weeks, which have caught my eye:

Thomas Spence, writing in the Wall Street Journal, about fixing the huge gap in literacy between girls and boys:

The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two. Boys spend far more time “plugged in” than girls do. Could the reading gap have more to do with competition for boys’ attention than with their supposed inability to focus on anything other than outhouse humor?

Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, confirmed this suspicion in a randomized controlled trial of the effect of video games on academic ability. Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn’t it, but Science has spoken.

Lindsay Johns, in Prospect Magazine, on why black students should be taught the Western Canon, as opposed to focusing on “diversity literature:”

Dead white men, the pillars of the western canon, remain supremely relevant to black people in the 21st century, because their concerns are universal. At its best, the canon elucidates the eternal truths at the heart of the human condition. It addresses our common humanity, irrespective of our melanin quotient. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens—all male, all very white and all undeniably very dead. But would anyone be so foolish as to deny their enduring importance? Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Boccacio’s Decameron or Pico’s Oration On The Dignity of Man are as germane to black people as they are to white. There is no apartheid in the philosophical musings of Cicero, no racial segregation in the cosmic grandeur of Dante and no ethnic oppression in the amorous sonnets of Shakespeare. These works can, if given the chance, speak as much to Leroy in Peckham or Shaniqua in the South Bronx as they can to Quentin in the home counties.

[Incidentally, in my experience, multicultural books aren’t promoted by actual minorities as much as they are by white teachers who are trying to “help” minorities.]

Carlin Romano, in The Chronicle of High Education, bemoans the detrimental effect on college reading assignments and literary scholarship by having a generation of students now entirely raised on digital technology:

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