Summer Book Project: Narcissus & Goldmund

Image courtesy of Solomon Says

I first read Narcissus and Goldmund ten years ago this February – finishing it at 11:33pm on February 16th, 2004 (the inscription in the back cover tells me). It’s likely that I was at my house on Barbara Circle, in Little Rock, an idyllic three bedroom where I spent my senior year of college. It’s possible that I was traveling somewhere with our track team, laying in the back of a team bus taking us north to the indoor tracks of the midwest, or biding time in a hotel or at one of our early season meets.

The note in the back of the book only gives the date and time.

I’d already read some Hermann Hesse by then – Siddhartha and Steppenwolfto be sure, perhaps even Demien (which I purchased at Little Rock’s fabulous Lorenzen & Co Booksellers). But after ten years, Narcissus and Goldmund has stuck out, somehow: there was something about this parable that effected the twenty-three year old me greatly. Delving into the passion at the heart of artistic expression, I recall the book presenting some sacred devotion to life, love and connection that however subtly contributed to the momentum of my post-collegiate years.

This past July, as I began thinking about these youthful books and first (re)read On the RoadI coupled Narcissus and Goldmund into a short list that I thought might capture the transformation that Literature had wrought on my young mind and life. The list included (or has grown to include):

Through On the Road I was heartened to discover in the text that neither of us had aged so terribly that the experience made me cringe. True, there was sadness where before I may have seen lust or excitement, fear where before there had been confidence. But alongside what Kerouac had to say to me at thirty two rang loud and clear the message he had for the younger Bryan, and it was a lesson I’m still grateful to have been taught.

With Hesse I had a similarly passionate relationship as a younger man, reading nearly everything I could get my hands on between the ages of twenty and twenty-five: Steppenwolf, Demien, Rosshalde, Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund (The Glass Bead Game site on my shelf, a treat to myself for some future date when I can read a “new” book by a favourite long-deceased author). Each of them is dog-eared and wildly underlined; the’ve been lent to friends and frequently to students (especially a yellow and yellowing copy of Demien that is currently on a vacation with one of the TALONS alumni). Concerned as so many of his stories and characters are with discovering one’s passion, voice and place in the world, he is what I consider to be an essential voice for wandering youth.

But I’ve long held Narcissus and Goldmund somewhere above his other works – more profound, more lasting, or all encompassing. I’m not sure what, exactly, and so I sat down this February, somewhat coincidentally to see what all the fuss had been about all those years ago.

As in most of Hesse, there is the ring of a Jungian call to pursue one’s heroic calling in life that Narcissus presents his younger pupil Goldmund as he counsels him away from life at the seminary:

“Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel.”

Goldmund’s sensitivity is aesthetic, where Narcissus’ is logical, and the novel makes a case for the superiority of the former as we follow Goldmund away from school to bathe in the personal riddles of time and the nature of the self on a pilgrimage that may be characterized as spiritual without being religious.

There is an exaltation of mystery here that I no-doubt found inspiring as a fifth year senior looking ahead at graduation.

“Oh how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pong, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning like Father Anselm or wise like Abbot Daniel, and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”

In the spring of 2004, I was on the verge of graduating from university. I had lived in Arkansas for most of five years, beginning when I was scarcely 18, and the life I had established for myself in the south would soon be over and in many ways irretrievable. While this is true in some ways of all experience, leaving Little Rock brought with it the additional mourning that most of my friends from that time would be returning to their own home countries and cities across the States, and whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, I was comforted through Goldmund’s experience of death bringing his life into a crystalline focus:

“He thought that he, that all men, trickled away, changing constantly, until they finally dissolved, while their artist-created images remained unchangeably the same.

“He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.”

Indeed, a journal entry from the afternoon of February 12th, 2004 – that was written on a charter bus taking our track and field team north to compete at an indoor meet the University of Iowa – is freckled with Hesse quotes, and captures a purely preserved expression of my mind at the time:

“We are in a western-looking saddle of the country, with sparse snow around the trees that flank farmers’ fields. It feels like Wyoming, the sun-bleached yellow terrain, mountainous as we run down the ancient Ozarks. Dirt roads and barns abound, as do the hawks riding updrafts against the dusty foothills, bullet holes against the blue sky.

“It is a place that lends itself to a trip through one’s mental landscape, and easy to become lost in your thoughts up here, and as we ascend a ridge-winding two-lane highway and climb above a soil-rich rolling valley - Marshall Welcomes You, the sign says – something says to me, Merritt, BC, and in a flash I see British Columbia. It is fleeting though and only a moment before the small-town churches and Missouri mom-and-pops begin to dominate the scenery, and Canada is an infinite ride away into the North.

“Home is both a million miles away and yet somehow coming closer than I care to have it. Anyone who cares to read these words will traipse through these last few dozen pages and tire of the time I have devoted to the loss and remorse the idea of leaving Arkansas has brought me. But it is something which weighs mightily upon me.”

As with Kerouac earlier this year, I am happy to find in the rereading of Narcissus and Goldmund that my younger self was fortunate to encounter an author and a companion such as Hesse. Goldmund confronts his own existential nausea with a devotion to applying his aesthetic sensitivities – as both the cause of Goldmund’s inspiration as much as it is his torment – to art that was able to capture “the solemn feeling of a rare and great experience which he might perhaps know one more time in the course of his life or which might remain unique.”

With so many of my own life experiences nearing an end, my anxiety was given solace in attempting to live with what Hesse called:

“A deep reverence, a great earnestness, and at the time a secret fear of the moment when this high, unique experience would be over, classified, swallowed by the routine of days.”

Reverence alone, Goldmund realizes, is not enough, however.

“In order to create a work like this, one had not only to carry images in one’s soul; one also had to have inexpressibly trained, practiced hands. Perhaps it was after all worthwhile to place one’s entire life at the service of art, at the expense of freedom and broad experience, if only in order to be able once to make something this beautiful, something that had not only been experienced and envisioned and received in love, but also executed to the last detail with absolute mastery. It was an important question.”

It is, and it’s one of many pieces of the book that struck me in 2014 as much as in 2004. Almost thirty three, I’m no longer looking out on adulthood as the Void Beyond University so much as I am poised between the path I’ve created of it thus far, and the possibilities it holds into the future. Ten years on from both Hesse and graduation, I have accumulated a good many of the life moments and experiences that will have cumulatively determined who I was in this life. And while my interpretation of the wrestling with that question may have shifted, it feels central to feelings about my self and life today as much as ever.

Like Goldmund, I have remained “in his dreams or his thought-filled moments of rest, overlooking a flowering or wilting valley, [...] all eyes an artist.” With him I have “longed desperately to halt the gracefully drifting nonsense of life with [my] mind and transform it into sense,” though of late this has taken on a more intellectual aim than artistic.

Toward the end of the book, Narcissus directs me to consider the merits of complementing this pursuit with more art, and heart:

“Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don’t look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving His creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent.”

Because just as the more academic or reflective posts on this site are records of ideas and expressions of an evolving self, there are emotions and realizations captured in these aged books of both Hermann Hesse and my own ink that light the way to an understanding that yet eludes meaning, an exaltation of

“How mysterious this life [is,] how deep and muddy its waters [run], yet how clear and noble what emerge[s] from them.”

On 21st Century Schools

As I’ve explored at some length here, I think of schools today as guided by our mission statements and legal mandates to pursue an ageless ideal of education along the lines of how John Dewey characterized schooling as the act of “preparing students for the adult vocations needed for society to continue to exist.”

The question of whether our current schools / teachers / curriculum are preparing students for the 21st century involves an analysis of the implicit messages communicated by schools about education and whether they are in line with the values of enlightenment and learning: an investigation of what we might call the Hidden Curriculum 

José García and Noah De Lissovoy introduce the idea that “school curriculum at any given point in time can be marked by the cultural, political and economic structure of that particular society.” Building from this premise, they set about defining the momentary economic need addressed by 21st century school curricula:

“Capitalism in its current stage is marked by structural changes in the process of production along with the rise of a global neoliberal political order. This stage is characterized by the transition to a post-Fordist process of production along with the rise of a neoliberal political project to establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites through the crafting of specific political and ideological structures and understandings (Harvey 2005; Wacquant 2012). The school, as an institution within the state, serves to produce the subjects that are required for the novel social conditions of the neoliberal era.”

Garcia and De Lissovoy frame their analysis within a context of precarious employment and financial instability – especially among young people – and “the carceral [1. Latin: carcer - prison] turn in Neoliberalism.”

“Building from Michael Hardt’s notion of ‘prison time,’ we propose a notion of school time which links preparation and demoralization, as the subjectivity of students is organized as much for exclusion as for incorporation into familiar spaces of labor and citizenship.”

In doing so, they present a hidden curriculum which “lays the groundwork for an orientation of servility in relationship to authority and a condition of precarity in relation to work.”

Driving this evolution of the hidden curriculum, the authors suggest, is the advent of a “post-Fordist regime of production,” wherein labour are:

      • Flexible, mobile and precarious;
      • Highly adaptable to constant innovations in production;
      • Willing to move frequently between jobs;
      • Accepting of the fact that long-term employment is not guaranteed;
      • And able to merge the communicative processes with those formally thought as “production,” or instrumental tasks.

Part of the larger neoliberal political project, the evolution of post-Fordist capitalism has been nurtured by the cultivation of “discourses of efficiency, consumerism, choice and accountability in place of sense of collective responsibility.”

Under neoliberalism,

“Spheres of social activity organized on the basis of notions of the public good or social solidarity are branded as inefficient from this perspective, and neoliberalism demands that they be reorganized according to the bottom-line logic of the market (Klein 2007). The school has been one of the crucial sites of the broad neoliberalism of society (Hursh 2005; Saltman 2005).”

The authors incorporate Michael Hardt‘s (1997) idea of “prison time‘ into the school’s hidden curriculum in considering the course of a school day:

“In [school], the planning ahead of how time will be used, controlled and regimented by power signifies the domination over an individual‘s control of his or her time, and thus his or her freedom and sense of agency. Furthermore, the control and regimentation of time eliminates possibilities for improvisation in daily experiences; nothing is unforeseeable.”

If the schools of the Fordist era of capitalism can be seen adopting the narrative motifs of the factory – with the student the symbolic factory worker – we glimpse a hidden curriculum preparing labour to receive an altogether different induction into the “real world,” one where one’s publicly available education could ensure a stable career and income, mortgage payments and a pension.

As in the unionized factory where the symbolic ‘worker’ will take up his life’s profession, through the hidden curriculum the student is taught to contribute his skills and working life to the larger project of labour as a respected part of capitalistic society.

Compared to the worker being groomed in the schools of the 21st century, we might forgive the many failings of 1950s institutions – racism, sexism, or violence against those outside the white mainstream – for their ability to maintain the intellectual ideals that would create the space for the civil rights movements that fought to create greater human freedom across the capitalistic experience. Today’s students are prepared to enter a world of labour created by the post-Fordist, neoliberal era where, for Hardt, Garcia and De Lissovoy, the societal metaphor at work in schools’ Hidden Curriculum has evolved in kind: “society is no longer a factory, it is a prison.”

“…in neoliberalism, freedom is understood as choice [...]. The choices are already prescribed and we express our freedom by choosing from the given options. Life even outside prison has thus become regimented and void of meaning, for we no longer have autonomy to decide what and how to use our time beyond exercising our freedom to consume.”

Gregory Bateson defines the type of learning within such a set of choices as Learning I, where development is achieved through a “correction of errors of choice within a set of alternatives.” 

From Learning 0 to Learning IV, Bateson introduces a Hierarchy of Learning in his book, Steps to an Ecology of MindLearning II, Bateson says, would exist as corrective change in the set of alternatives from which choice is made.”

In Learning II, there might still be a test, or a report card; but participants are invited to be engaged in the process.

“Within this seemingly inescapable reality of domination,” Garcia and De Lissovoy concede, “there are nevertheless moments in which inmates and those outside prison resist the drive of power to control time, in authentic encounters with others and the relationships that arise from such encounters.”

Indeed.

As Bateson’s hierarchy moves to Learning III, we see a glimpse of schooling which encourages a corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made, a truly transformative act of learning that schools are also charged with providing. For the act of learning, and of schooling, is not merely to prepare the required labour for the dictates of an all-powerful market society; it is to prepare the minds and citizenry capable of creating a society, economy and culture that honours the best of what the Project of Enlightenment promises, and critiques the status quo, imagines what could be alongside the asking why things are the way they are, and has the skills to create a meaningful tomorrow.

Through such an education, 21st century schools might realize what Paulo Freire called the creation of:

a critical and dynamic view of the world, [which] strives to unveil reality, unmask its mythicization, and achieve a full realization of the human task: the permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.

…a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.


I woke up this morning with the lofty goal of revisiting Gardner Campbell‘s keynote from the Open Education conference that went down in Vancouver this week, The Ecology of Yearning. However, the gods of the Internet didn’t agree and the archive seems to have gone missing for the time being, so I will hopefully return to it soon. In the meantime, I’m digging into an older presentation from Gardner called “Teaching, Learning, and the Digital Imagination” that is hosted on Youtube and his blog.

Even though the talk is only a year old, it synthesizes so many ideas that, even in a year, seem foundational to vastly greater heights. Beginning with Clay Shiky’s quote,

We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race.


Gardner discusses the “Digital Imagination” as a vision of the Internet’s transformative potential. Far more than a data management system, or the efficiency of email, he frames our appraisal of technology’s value or purpose in the tradition of under and mis-valuing innovation. Just as we mistook the true innovative potential of the electric motor, the question is not, to be sure, How can the Internet make us more efficient? but What is the real meaning and appropriate function of the Internet itself? 

Gardner, round one.

Photo Courtesy of @drgarcia

Even as I generally find this sort of argument quite compelling, I was especially struck with the power of the idea that in practicing, refining and education we are striving – one might even say yearning - to oblige a “moral responsibility to be of the most use to civilization,” and that the Internet creates the possibility of a “self-reinforcing virtuous cycle” that I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to witness over the course of the last week with Gardner and other educators out of no more technology than guitar amplifiers and a few printed lyrics and chords.

Audrey Waters highlighted the connection that has become tradition among the DS106 tribe in Vancouver,

I started to write this post, and then found myself spending the evening at a musical jam session with Campbell and others. So there’s that. And that’s actually a wonderful ending to a wonderful beginning of the day. Because jamming is sharing. Jamming is collaborative creation. Jamming is learning. Jamming is process. “Make art dammit,” as DS106 commands us, with the emphasis, I think, on the “make” more than than the “art.” And at the end of the evening with the music ringing in my ears, Campbell’s keynote makes perfect sense, and there’s nothing much to say.


Being able to play music with Gardner a few times this week – including two attempts at the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” among others – added a different authenticity to his words this morning, though. He wasn’t speaking abstractly about his thinking that technology might prove the platform for a heightening community’s potential; he was speaking specifically. Shouting, really. Singing, explaining deftly to a crowd of ecstatic participant-revelers that, “Her name is Gloria.”

Cleaning the Canvas

Today Iris and a group of TALONS grade tens removed one of the signature pieces of the classroom “cave paintings.” As part of her This I Believe essay representation (last year), she had initially come up with the idea of filling the large triangle above the back of the class with a synthesis of her classmates’ essays, a colourful mantra that has hung above the room for more than a year: We Believe in Being Happy.

But today we started the task of cleaning the room of past projects, artwork, and the residue of culture that a two-year, interdisciplinary highschool program can accumulate. The collages from our fall retreat came down from their clothes-pegs; blackout poetry was removed from windowpanes and shades; and the banner would have to come down.

Which is not to say that this was met very easily by the TALONS who have spent two years filling this space with their breath and essence, have laughed and cried and made art across its walls, floors and desks. There is a certain amount of the pain that is saying goodbye to a place like the TALONS classroom that leaving a physical legacy can help alleviate. But how this happens is an important piece of the program’s emotional topography.

I had a conversation with a few of the TALONS who were around near the end of period three today about this: how at this stage in the program’s life, there is an ‘inner’ perception of what TALONS is – created and inhabited by those who have been here, and those who are here – as well as an ‘outer’ perception – held by those who know the class through blog posts and SharePoint sites, district newsletters and a growing, global, word of mouth. Now that this incarnation of the gifted cohort is in its sixth year, and there is a much more defined ‘outer’ perception of what this place is, and what it is striving to achieve, it is important to consider that those left with the task of creating the ‘inner’ world of TALONS – current learners in the program – do so under the weight of considerable history and the legacy of the remarkable people who have called this classroom home for two years.

For the new myths to be written, in other words, the old myths need to make room for them. And while there is a great empty space where the banner used to hang, there are already plans for its quotes and paint-stained hand and footprints to be deposited and scattered about the cupboards and closets of the room so that the ghosts and wisdom of TALONS past will still be speaking to us.

Beginning again in September, the room will have new cave painters: a new cohort of 56 young learners, each eager to continue writing the story of this place. Their task is a unique one, and individual to the group they will create; but it is a narrative given over to them, most humbly, by the departing grade tens, and each of the past TALONS alumni.

Why Doodling Matters

Why Doodling Matters

Why Doodling Matters by Giulia Forsythe

One of the extra-special pieces of the Unplugd experience was not only being able to spend some time around an actual campfire with #Ds106Radio fire-mate Giulia Forsythe, but being able to collaborate with her in preparing the second chapter of the summit publication, “Why _______ Matters: Voices and Choices.” In addition to being tapped to collect the various chapters’ themes and stories in visual representations and sketches, Giulia’s own essay, “Why Doodling Matters,” took the shape of a visual essay that continued to develop over the course of an afternoon on the couch in the Edge’s Points North cabin (though, to be fair, I disappeared before Giulia delivered a lengthier treatise on the wonders of iPad file storage and transfer).

Giulia’s essay begins at Temple Grandin‘s notion – highlighted in an excellent TED Talk – of the world needing All kinds of Minds, and makes a powerful, visual argument for the necessity of thinking in doodles:

As Temple Grandin says, “the world needs all kinds of minds.” and some of those minds “think in pictures”. Doodling is a form of external thought that allows you to visualize the connections you are making while thinking. In the conscious mind, doodling can assist concentration and focus but even in the unconscious mind, while doodling and day dreaming connections are made. As Steven Johnson says, the “mind’s primordial soup” can lead to “serendipitous collisions of creative insight”. Doodling has allowed connections to be made between people and ideas, the magical space between. These aspects can lead to better problem solving. By sharing my thinking through visual means, my most important connections have been to people, by way of sharing my perceptions of their ideas, presentations and words back to them.

You can download Giulia and the rest of the Voices and Choices author group’s contribution to the Unplugd publication, as well as Giulia’s doodles that accompany the other chapters as they are published over the next month. Our group will also be participating in an author panel on #ds106radio this Thursday evening (6pm PST / 9pm EST), and discussing our individual threads in the chapter’s conversation. In addition to Giulia and myself, they are:

Why Choice Matters: A Story Shared by Kathy Cassidy from unplugd on Vimeo.

  • Kim Gill – “Why the Tool Matters”

Why The Tools Matter: A Story Shared by Kim Gill from unplugd on Vimeo.

  • Rodd Lucier – “Why Irresistible Challenges Matter”

Why Irresistible Challenges Matter: A Story Shared by Rodd Lucier from unplugd on Vimeo.

Why Perspective Matters: A Story Shared by Andy McKiel from unplugd on Vimeo.

Wise words

Captured by #Talons' own Jenna

Captured by Jenna

“Do you believe in something beautiful? Then get up and be it.” Ted Leo

Kelly is on to something in the second draft of her This I Believe essay:

A character, even if it is based off of oneself, is not real. His or her experiences don’t have to follow the way of the rules of the world. The character is given a blank page every five hundred or so words, a new chance to create his or herself, a new chance at being somebody, a new chance at redemption, a new chance at life. So embrace your inner character. After all, everyday is a new page that we should not be afraid to write.

Sharing in whim

I know teachers tend to throw out mixed messages, “Be open, share. Be careful, be scared.” This could be an authentic real world experience to create something beautiful with a larger group of people than those within our immediate community. (I invite other teachers to share this Flickr set and this post to see where it can go. Ask your class to leave poems, stories, haikus, comments anything. Maybe we can write a book, record an album…)

There are many things we can do with the images, the words, the connection. I hope that at least a few of you will share a few ideas in the comments below. I don’t know who will respond, but that is the beauty of sharing in whim 1, if you throw enough out there, occasionally something beautiful will come floating back.

The above photos were shared on Jabiz Raisdana’s blog with an invitation to Zach Chase‘s students to join into the fun with the proposition that if enough comments, poems, phrases and inspiration and were left on the photos, Jabiz would write them into a song that he would share for future mashup, remixes, or…?

What will you do with it? Download it. Remix it. Add your voice to it. Set it to images. Create a video. Rap it. This version is only a draft and is not even close to being “done.” Tear it up! Stones by intrepidflame

And while I mightn’t have “tore it up,” or reinvented any of what had previously been created or recorded, I sat at my kitchen counter after work on Friday, donned a set of headphones, and spent the better part of an hour adding my own voice to a project spanning both North American coasts that had gained its initial motivation and impetus from an unmet friend in Jakarta, Indonesia. In kind I offer my own addition to the project in the hopes that it inspires others to lend their own creativity, perspective, and voice to collaborative expression that would have unthinkable even five years ago (to me, anyway), but is today the sort of thing that can be accomplished on a Friday afternoon, between work and dinner.

My contribution:

Stones by Bryanjack

We’ve been talking about the benefits – personal and collective – that come with sharing a lot this week in the Talons class. Seeking an elusive objectivity in media and student reflections on the recent tumult in Egypt and across the Middle East, the class has moved past a definition of the (capital ‘T’) Truth which linearly separates Right & Wrong, or Truth & Lie, to an understanding that we can only know what we might collectively deign in shared exploration, conversation and reflection, and that this process must be ongoing.

This week we blogged, commented, argued, challenged one another, and constructed our own understanding out of the pieces of media, and truths, we could piece together in posts and a collection of quotes spanning student and journalists’ words, musical evocations, and the frozen images of photographs from halfway across the world.

Yesterday we distilled some of the more potent aspects of these expressions in a Typewith.me page that we hope to continue to shape, sculpt and share in the coming weeks, as a first experiment in working with the web as not only a research and publishing platform, but collaborative space wherein there are few, if any, limits.

We invite you (Mr. Chase’s class, Jabiz’ students, and the rest of you out there) to join in this conversation: comment on our blogs, highlight or share some words that resonate with you about the power of the collective and the human will toward freedom, or take the discussion to the next level.

Share, and be vulnerable: it may just be what we’re here for.

To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love ourselves with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee; to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this, just to be able to stop and instead of catastophizing what might happen just to say, ‘I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable is to feel alive?’”

If it is true, what Liam wrote yesterday, that, “Collective will is the most powerful force in the universe,” then we are truly onto something here. Let’s keep it going.

Today, Zach Chase writes, looking back on what a week it’s been, is the day you jump in and create something.

  1. Bryan’s note: this is so the title of the book / album / movie.

Talons debate the "Good" Books

My Favorite Book Shop .........As the TALONS Novel Study has progressed, I have waited for the discussion of six diverse novels – listed here – to begin to overlap into a meaningful discourse of the nature and the value of literature. Yesterday in class I asked a question posed by Clare and, to some extent, Kiko, on their blogs recently, hoping that across generations of literature there might be a common thread or reasoning behind our study of the Great Books. Clare asks:

So if Catcher in the Rye is no longer making us re-think society as it did in the 1950s, does that make it less important?

Similarly, Kiko wonders about the nature of treading the trampled ground of books like Catcher or Lord of the Flies:

How many people had done that before me? Is the size of that number a good thing, or a bad thing? Why does this matter to me at all? I have a slightly different perspective on everything than everyone else in the world.

Being that each of these questions meets an answer in a subjective truth (excellently supported and given context in a comment by Michael Kaisaris), I reposed them to the entire class the following afternoon, creating a stir that boiled over into a debate that not only continued in the classroom long after the 3 o’clock bell, but in a Facebook thread that appears to have consumed many members of the class throughout the evening.

Here are the highlights of what was discussed: Book Worm

The question I want to put out there is “What makes art great?” Great art is something that makes a person feel. If a person is making connections, predictions, having intuitions, thinking, or especially feeling emotion, the art is important. If a reader feels stronger about Twilight than Romeo & Juliet, I think that may also be the greater art. At least, to that select individual.

Katie

I agree that fan fiction has significant relevance to our society and that, in a hundred years, it could be very useful to understand the values and what not of society today. However, I do not offer it the same “importance” (although maybe we should find a less subjective word) than, say, a Douglas Coupland book. While I suppose one could argue that each would provide an equal understanding of today’s culture to future generations, one can’t argue that they would be of equal value to a person’s philosophical concept of the world and their position within it. By reading fan fiction, I doubt anyone would learn more (that isn’t to say that there is nothing one would learn) about themselves or gain much insight into our fundamental raison d’être than by reading a Douglas Coupland book or other piece of “good literature.” There is a reason it is called that and fan fiction is not. “Good literature” challenges our ideas and society’s rules more so than fan fiction ever could. It is because of this that it is more important.

Saskia

Were both forms of writing made equal though? Both were created by a person who wanted to express themselves and they way they saw something. Shallow or not, both fan fiction and literature were written by a person who was passionate enough about something to write it down and take the risk or putting it out where the world can access it.

Katie

Importance, in my opinion, is related to how much a work influences society, not how much it reflects the society of the moment. Take Catcher in the Rye, for example. It was revolutionary at the time it was written and changed the way people thought about teenagers. Even today teenagers who read the book can identify with Holden Caulfield. He certainly influenced my perspective on my own teenage angst. Has Twilight influenced society other than to increase the sale of vampire t-shirts and create great fodder for jokes? I don’t think so. Katie brings up the point about people who love Twilight getting more out of it than literature. Maybe they get more enjoyment out of reading Stephanie Meyer, but they aren’t getting more understanding of the world or getting any new opinions to consider.

Ariana

I think almost all literature is about their philosophical concept of the world and their position within it. When people write, their morals, beliefs, ideals, ideas, opinions, personality and themselves are written in. You can’t write anything without that, whether it is shallow or not. Even jobro fanfic represents that. What the writer thinks about the world and their place in it as a jobro fan.

Louise

There are certain ways you can look at things like fan fiction and see what it says about society, but on the other hand, there are works of art that I believe are more important to society and literature as a whole, things that will ‘stand the test of time’. I think it all boils down to one thing: If we were to keep, say, ten pieces of art, from any time period, which would they be?My Favorite Book Shop ......... The ones that changed society the most, the ones that made people stop and think and realize what is really happening, either in their time, or in the past. I think what really makes art great is that it can say something that people will look at and feel something about, whether it’s a personal connection or a greater understanding of people and/or society.

Kiko

It would all come down to who was picking. Everyone would chose 10 different pieces and then this argument would go world wide. We would no longer be the only ones debating over “fluff” versus “literature.” Yes, you would pick the ones that have contributed to society the most but even if you instantly ruled out fan fiction, Twilight, etc. How would you finalize your top ten picks of art? Why is one classic book more important than another? “…we can rate it’s importance in terms of the impact on society. ” Won’t each individual have their own thoughts and feelings on how each piece of art has impacted society? It still boils down to perspective. You could argue this until the end of time. Everyone sees things differently gets something different out of everything they read.

Katie

In the end, it is the affect a book has on all of society or the majority of society that determines where it stands and whether it will be remembered as a book of great importance. Reiterating some of what Kiko wrote, it the ones that made society as a whole stop and think, the ones that changed society’s perspectives (in the present or the past) that will last. Fan fiction or other fluff, though it may somehow be very important to an individual, does not make the cut.

Saskia

I don’t think anyone writes a book thinking that it’s going to change society. I agree with Louise that they write it to say something for themselves and if it ends up being important enough to change a reader, then that’s great. And if it resonates with a lot of people, then I guess it might change society a little, but I don’t think many books have changed society; people don’t read books and instantaneously change.

Clare

Reading Is Fundamental “There are two books that I’ve read in my life that disturbed me in such a way that I felt they literally shook my faith in humanity. ‘Blindness’ was the first and ‘Oryx and Crake’ by Margaret Atwood was the second.” Dave Truss left this comment on my blog post about Blindness, and I definitely agree with him. Books do change people. They change how one views society, how one perceives life, how people think… the list goes on. Maybe all books don’t, maybe no book you’ve ever read has changed you, but some people are heavily influences by books.

Kiko

These books didn’t change society by themselves. However, they definately contributed to that change in a big way. Look at Kiko’s post above. Let’s take banned books for example. Why have books been banned throughout history? Because they deal with issues that governments or schools don’t want people to consider. If books had no profound impact on the opinions of the nation, there would be no point in outlawing them. I don’t think anybody would ever consider banning Twilight because it doesn’t challenge anybody’s faith or bring up any revolutionary ideas (not to say that all books need to be banned to be considered “great”).

Ariana

As for Twilight…
  • putting others before ourselves
  • love is unconditional (however cheesy it might be)
  • being perfect isn’t as great as it might sound
  • people are not always what they seem
  • perfection on the outside does not always mean perfection on the inside
  • with great power comes great responsibility
  • It’s okay to lean on people for support
  • stereotypes/ don’t believe everything you read (about vampires for instance)
How this would fundamentally change someone…
  • changed way some people saw themselves. Before, they might have considered themselves “average” but now they are more confident in their right to talk to someone they’ve previously admired or even been intimidated by.
  • effected how people viewed their problems (angst), ability to speak to others about them
  • made people realize they could be accepted even if they deviate from the norm.

Katie

If you look deep enough you can find themes, even meaningful themes, in any novel from fan fiction to Twilight. And maybe these themes have an affect on people. However, I disagree with the word fundamental. While the great works (such as those mentioned earlier) take on new ideas or new perspectives that shifted the way people saw things, the themes you listed in Twilight are not new. They appear over and over in almost every novel you read. There is no fundamentally different or thought-altering idea in Twilight and that is one of the many things that separates it from other literature.

Saskia

But ideas are used over and over again and maybe the 500th time it is used it makes a difference. Yes the ideas in Twilight aren’t new but they were also read by many many people who have in some way been affected by those ideas.

Andrea

A classic work should say something of value and draw attention to fundamental human problems. It should support or condemn a point of view. That means saying something more significant than: “Vanilla ice cream is indescribably amazing,” even if that statement is true and will maybe cause ten people who have never tried vanilla ice cream to visit the grocery store. The message doesn’t have to be new, but it should at least take a new angle or provide new evidence.

Ariana

It’s about whether some books are greater, or more important to society, than others. Also, I think we need to get away from some random person in some obscure place. For a book to be considered “great,” it needs to effect a substantial portion of the population. One person doesn’t make it or break it.

Ariana

It’s not about a book being great? Then what is great literature? I don’t think that anything has to impact society. It’s the importance we’re talking about, not the impact. We’re all random people in random obscure places.

Louise

Louise, that blew my mind. I am sitting here at my computer, feeling like such a random person in a random obscure place.

Katie

For many people Twilight was one of the first books that they actually enjoyed reading; that was the case with many people I knew in middle school and for them Twilight was a good book because they hated reading as then they found a book they could actually enjoy so they probably got a lot more out of the book than you or I did.

Andrea

As Andrea mentioned with Twilight and I can say with Harry Potter, those books are the reason that a lot of people came to enjoy reading – I would consider that a huge impact and thus, “important.”

Clare

Stalin once said that “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic.” Well, I say “If a book is bought and read by a million people, it’s a best seller, whoop-dee-do. If I read a book and enjoy it, it’s a divine miracle.” The ability of a book to affect many people (society) doesn’t make it a good book in an individual’s opinion. Millions of people bought The Da Vinci Code but I recommend reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Why? Because my in MY opinion it’s better. This may be different for different people, and they may say my book which ain’t a best seller sucks because it wasn’t economically successful. This brings me back to the fan fiction/fluff vs. classics/non-fluff. If people can connect with the writing, then the literature has done it’s job. If teenage girls can connect with Jonas bros, then that’s them, and the fan fiction didn’t fail in communicating a message and representing that segment of society. It seems to me that these days (modern times) with the internet, TV, face book, and all that what could have been great pieces of art are melted and conformed to something that would sell well, and thus receive marketing and cast a wide net for audience. Small things and exquisite literature that probably won’t sell well are discarded for conformists. This is quite disturbing in that the conformist stuff are what our era will be remembered for.

Steven

Depending on who you are you will get different things out of different literature. Overall, society might deem some books as having more to offer, but it is still up to the individual to decide and/or discover what they value the most. In school, it is beneficial to study some of the same novels that humans have labeled as ‘important.’ However, every person is unique therefore no one has the right to judge what importance they find in the art they see.

Katie