In a short piece for The New Republic, Noreen Malone examines the most frequently highlighted phrases from books available on the Kindle for what they tell us about the contemporary mind. These include passages from books like The Hunger Games, Pride and Prejudice, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. What strikes her, she writes, is “how American the sentiments are”:
Even the one quotation on the list in French, from Sherlock Holmes, translates to a very American ode to productivity. (“The man is nothing; the work is everything.”) The American spirit isn’t just some fabrication of scholars or pundits, and it hasn’t been eroded over time, at least judging by this list. Self-reliance and the hope for a better tomorrow—and a better self—are embedded in nearly every underlined passage.
This is not what struck me. Some of the highlighted passages are very “American” in the stereotypical sense Malone suggests (such as the one she notes above or Malcolm Gladwell’s recommendation in Outliers that “three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying”). But most of the first fifty deal with love or fate, two of the most common subjects of all literature from Homer to the present.
On love, for example, we have passages like these:
“‘I just want to spend every possible minute of the rest of my life with you,’ Peeta replies.” (Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins)
“Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true. Here is the place where I love you.” (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins)
“‘Having an eye for beauty isn’t the same thing as a weakness,’ Peeta points out. ‘Except possibly when it comes to you.’” (Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins)
“Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another” (The Five Love Languages, Gary D. Chapman)
And on the occurrence of events beyond our control and our response to them, we have passages like these:
“Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” (Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins)
“We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.” (Mocking Jay, Suzanne Collins)
“Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. ‘Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen.’” (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins)
“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle)
Granted, these are not particularly eloquent or nuanced passages (and, as a colleague of mine remarked, not every reader only highlights passages with which they agree), but they all deal with love or fate in some way or another.
Malone doesn’t ignore these passages entirely, but she’s at a bit of a loss as to what to make of them. Regarding the first group, she claims that she can’t explain the significance of phrases like “I want to spend every possible minute of the rest of my life with you,” or at least not quickly. She finds the second group “striking” for their “bleakness” and suggests that they express “inherently flawed human selves,” but leaves it at that to turn to American “productivity” and “self-reliance.”
Malone’s article is a bit off-the-cuff, so I don’t want to make too much of it, but it does show, I think, how narrow it can be sometimes to read literature (or responses to literature) as a reflection of social contexts alone.
I study and teach American and world literature, and the reigning approach to literary texts over the past fifty years has been to treat texts largely as expressions or rejections of societal norms, ideologies, or power relations. There is some merit to this approach. Literary works do reflect the values and beliefs of a particular time and place. They can also challenge those values and beliefs. And the cause-and-effect argumentative structure of this approach is also one that the academy values at the moment, so it makes sense for professors to make these sorts of arguments about texts.
But it can also cause critics and scholars to force textual or artistic “data” to fit a pre-determined argument regarding power relations that can lead to erroneous, even downright silly conclusions. I read an article recently that posited that in a performance for television, Duke Ellington used his music and movements on camera to challenge the “decorporealization” that U.S. Steel had somehow been able to inflict on the masses.
Conservative critics can be guilty of this same sort of ideological over-simplification (using the same approach, I’m sure they’d be shocked to discover) when they argue that all “modern” literature and art is worthless because it embodies the relativism of the age.
Or, as in the case of Malone, this approach can cause a critic to miss the forest for the trees—to see expressions of “an American ode to productivity” instead of a universal and unchanging longing for companionship and meaning.
Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and curates Prufrock, a free daily newsletter on books, art, and ideas.