Monday, April 19, 2010

Literary appreciation

In several classes I've taught, I've made a point of deriding the term "literary appreciation." My view of "appreciation" has been that it resembles checking a box. You have to take a class to do it correctly, but once you're done with the class, you've done the job. OK, I've appreciated Ulysses; now what? Appreciation seems like a form of "tolerance," a nod toward a particular piece of art's right to exist (which one might have denied before the appreciation set in), and a general sense of its value (to others, if not to oneself). The term also seems directed more at the appreciator than the thing being appreciated. One wishes to be a person who appreciates Ulysses, so one takes a class and is certified as such.

I can't say whether I've taken an appreciation course myself--is the usual required Great Books course for freshman an appreciation course? Or is this more of a university-extension thing, a back-of-the-NYT-book-review-CD-series thing--meaning it's a kind of leisure activity, though a more high-minded one than most? Have I been teaching appreciation all along, and not known it?

Anyway, I've recently come to think of "appreciation" in the sense of gratitude, as in, I appreciate your help. This occurred to me in thinking further about Beautiful Children and why it has stuck with me, despite my strong resistance to pretty much every aspect of the novel. I've found I'm grateful for the way the book challenged me, how it worked to overcome my suspicions of its subject matter and style. I feel I've become more open to the world in some small but significant way from having read it.

I guess what I'm saying is that I most appreciate--am most grateful for--books that make me more open. That's hard work for a book to do, much harder than confirming my preexisting beliefs and desires. The risk is much greater that I'll put the book down; but if I don't, it becomes a true friend.

So were I to teach "appreciation" now, I would present it as a way of seeking openness through art, and being grateful when it happens.

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