Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The return on investment of literature

From time to time over the years, restless in spirit, dissatisfied with the limits of earthly existence, I have been tempted to switch my attention to Asian literature, meaning, mostly, Chinese and Japanese. The Book of Songs, The Tale of Genji, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Basho and Li Po. I know so little about Asian literature. The more I fill in my knowledge of Western literature, over the course of many years, the larger the gap becomes, and the more it niggles at me.

I sound like a spiritual seeker, hoping to refresh my soul in traditions not my own. But no, the fact is that my return on investment would be higher if I switched to Asian literature. It might require a high initial investment – the history is unknown, the names of things are strange, the aesthetic standards are unfamiliar. Diminishing returns would kick in at some point. But for a long time, everything would be novel and exciting. Investment here means time and concentration. Return means knowledge, delight, curiosity fulfilled.

What I’m calling diminishing returns – the novel I’m reading is just like other novels I have read, the history I’m studying is mostly full of ideas I have already encountered – is actually a crucial step towards real understanding, towards specialization. Great scholars repeat themselves, circle around the a single set of facts or single author, searching for new insights. But that will never be me, so at some point, I would shift my attention to something else. I don’t plan to write about 19th century Western literature for the rest of my life, either.

Why do I say “switch” to Asian literature? Because for the Neurotic Reader, everything is a project. Lists of books, background history, modern essayists. Jonathan Spence on China, Donald Keene on Japan. Perhaps this post will serve as a goad to myself – don’t read so neurotically. Dip in, wander around, use the lists for inspiration. A certain amount of neurosis is probably necessary to actually finish a long, complex book life The Tale of Genji. But some moderation, please.

I do want to insist on the value of specialization, even for amateurs. Spending a year or two reading nothing but classical Greek literature is a different experience than scattering the books over a lifetime. Very valuable, very satisfying. But there are limits to our energy, and interest, and time.

I go out of the darkness
Onto a road of darkness
Lit only by the far off
Moon on the edge of the mountains.

Lady Izumi Shikibu, late 10th or early 11th century, translated by Kenneth Rexroth.


  1. The great Joseph Campbell had a lot to say about how important change is for our sense of being alive. He also said:

    We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

  2. One of the great advantages of amateur study is that we can change in a blink--no professional consequences.

    I wish you great luck when you dive into your new specialty--we'll all benefit from what you learn, I'm sure.

  3. This is all basically right, isn't it. A sense of freedom that should be part of genuine intellectual curiosity.