17 February 2013

Bookish drones

In the New Yorker, Teju Cole wonders whether literature makes us better and cites a number of literary heavyweights who –perhaps unsurprisingly– hold this point of view: Mario Vargas Llosa, Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson (another poignant but more nuanced example would be Elias Canetti's "The profession [or calling] of the poet".)

The main concern of the article is Barack Obama's actions as president and in particular his liberal use of drone strikes. The author is puzzled and disappointed, since he expected Obama to have more empathy than, for instance, G. W. Bush. He does ask the question "How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief?" but without even trying to answer it.

The easiest solution is to simply deny any link between literature and human qualities (Cole himself makes the standard reference to cultured Nazis, and there is no shortage of additional examples) but this is deeply unsatisfying in itself and at odds with another widely held opinion: that education is not strictly utilitarian, but valuable in itself for it yields better citizens.

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