Changing Our Approach to Reading Older Literature (Re: How Should We Read Classics?)

Hello everybody. Welcome back to my
channel “The Medieval Reader”. In March, I and a few other people – notably Elena
Makridina and Anna @ Anna Babbling Book (I believe that’s her
channel name. I will link both channels below) – will be reading Orlando Furioso by
Ariosto, which was first published in 1516. It is an epic of the Italian
Renaissance. I think it is a parody of courtly romance, but I might be
completely wrong. But today I thought I’d make a video about reading pre-modern
and early modern texts, especially since booktube mostly focuses on recent
releases. I also think that the approach that most booktubers take to modern
books is not necessarily the best approach to take to reading early and
pre-modern texts. So that’s why I’m making this video today. A little over a
year ago, Adam @ Memento Mori hosted a read-along of Boccaccio’s Decameron. So
the Decameron was written in the 14th century by this Florentine Boccaccio,
and it’s a collection of tales. This read- along particularly came to mind because
I am currently reading the Decameron for one of my classes on Renaissance
literature. Near the end of the read along Eric Karl Anderson made a video
called “How Should We Read the Classics?” (I will link it below) where he expressed
his frustration about problematic content in the Decameron and in general,
his frustration about misogyny homophobia racism etc found in books
that we consider the classics. And then there is Aaron Hanlon, an academic whose
twitter account i follow, who recently posted a thread about his experience
being a literature scholar and the assumption that people make that if you
are studying literature then you’re necessarily an enthusiast of the
particular author you work on or the book that
you’re working on. So you are passionate about your research and
champion the book that you’re reading. Now…well… the first might be true. You
might be very passionate about what you’re working on. The second may not be
the case. You may not be enthusiastic about what you’re reading even if you
are passionate about the research that you’re doing. Here’s what Aaron Hamlin has
to say about the assumption people make about literature scholars. And I think
this is an assumption that booktubers tend to make – at least based on the
videos that I’ve been seeing and the conversations that we’ve had on booktube.
So here is what Hamlin says: Why is it that the people in various science and social
science fields see themselves as dispassionate, objective, etc., and yet
expect scholars of history, literature, culture, etc. to be ‘enthusiasts’? Why should we be? Why would anyone have such a ludicrous expectation?” “Let me be clear: I’m not talking about love or enthusiasm for our work. I do love my work. I’m talking about the I’m talking about the expectation that we love our objects of study, that we revere them, that we exist to affirm their greatness, that our work is a kind of Hagiography of the Thing.” “My conjecture is that the lay person’s
experience with (and tendency to study) literature, history, etc. basically ends in grade school, where ‘arts and culture’ and ‘English’ education is weighted heavily on appreciation and cultural affirmation of ‘aesthetic merit,’ etc.”
Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading for cultural appreciation or aesthetic merit. I obviously think that Medieval and Renaissance literature can
be rewarding in a positive way. I think that’s quite clear if you follow my
channel. I definitely would consider myself a medieval enthusiast – but not
always because I am an enthusiast of the subject matter that I’m studying. So for
example, I am actually working on a Renaissance trial (early 16th century) – a
man who was burnt at the stake for heresy. I’m clearly not an enthusiast
of inquisitorial practices, executing heretics. I’m not! And yet, I find it very
interesting to read these trials because they tell us a lot about law in France
in the early 16th century, about orthodoxy and heresy, about early
Reformation conflicts, about this man whose work I was not at all familiar
with until I started reading about his trial. So these are all the reasons why
I’m enthusiastic about my subject matter. But it’s not because I have this great
appreciation for…you know… heresy trials. Like yes let’s bring them back.
No!! I am certainly very critical of it. I mean, we basically take it for granted
that executing people whose religious views you disagree with is wrong.
But I don’t think that’s necessarily the way that booktube tends to approach
literature in general. Which kind of makes sense because mostly booktube is
about modern books – about recent releases, and about what books are good and what
books are not based on a number of criteria. But that’s not necessarily the
approach that I would suggest you take for pre- and early modern literature
because I think you would take more out of it if you were to acknowledge the
problematic content and read these older works for more than just cultural
appreciation or aesthetic merit or any of that. I don’t think that you have to
love the pre- and early modern literature that you read to find it valuable. And I
think that the star rating system that we tend to use for books (and I do too on
Goodreads. I rate all of my books) can often not be very helpful when it comes
to older books. So for example, I do think that reading the 11th century Song of
Roland is valuable. But…you know…what star-rating should I give it? You know…
there’s quite a lot of racism. It’s incredibly anti-Islamic. It’s it’s got
all these problems. it is in a way crusade propaganda. It has value because
it’s been cited so much. It was widely known. It was the basis of later epics.
But that doesn’t mean that I have to have some great cultural appreciation
for the Song of Roland to find it valuable.
And so Eric Karl Anderson’s video is related to all of this because… you know…
he expresses frustration about having to feel like he has to like the Decameron.
And I don’t think he has to. Some of the stories do include rape as humor, just
incredibly sexist material in general, victim blaming, all kinds of things like
this. And there are a number of scholars who have written extensively about
Boccaccio’s view on women. And it’s complicated. Because he also wrote a work
called “De mulieribus claris” (“Concerning the Illustrious Women”), where
he praises women. Does that mean that that collection of tales about women,
even though they are written as a praise of women, is devoid of misogyny? Not
necessarily. Does that mean that that excuses all of the problematic
representation in the Decameron? No, no. I think that it’s…it’s important to
acknowledge these elements and to sit with them and to study them as
potentially revealing about the way that 14th century Italian intellectuals
thought about women…Christian intellectuals thought about women. You
know, there’s…there’s a lot that we can take from reading the Decameron that
doesn’t include just enthusiasm about the stories because there’s a lot of
problematic content in it. And it’s possible that there will be some of that
in Orlando Furioso. I don’t know because I haven’t read it,
but it’s very possible. So some of the responses to Eric’s video were like,
“Well, you need to read the texts… you know…in context. You need to be
aware of the time period, and this author was a product of his time. Well, yes. But
that doesn’t mean that we need to excuse the homophobia, misogyny, and racism. And
so, if the author is a product of his time then why can’t we then dig deeper
and analyze what it means for him to be a product of his time? What does it mean
that Boccaccio is a product of a period in which this kind of rhetoric was very
common and encouraged about women – about… oh I don’t know… any group of people that
are still marginalized today? What does this tell us… you know… can’t we then
maybe talk about the Decameron as evidence of the way people have thought
about women and the kind of rhetoric that was used – rhetoric that might still
be used today? There’s a number of really valuable ways of approaching older
literature that isn’t just simply appreciation. I think this can be very
valuable, and that’s what a lot of us studying literature do. I think this is
maybe the most important for those of you who are studying English literature
(or in any literature). I’m working on French literature. it doesn’t really
matter because…you know… on booktube yes, we read books for pleasure. And so…you
know… we might give the Song of Roland or Boccaccio or whatever two stars because
we had a lot of problems with the content. And like, that’s perfectly fine
because booktube is…you know… whatever you want it to be. But if you are an
English list student, then maybe approaching it in this other way (of not
just trying to rate it based on your own pleasure) that can be valuable and you
might find that you’re getting more out of your English classes that way. And I
would really encourage people on booktube to do that if they decide to
participate in a read-along of an older work or just read an older work for
themselves. You might find that you take a lot more from the experience than just
being frustrated and not knowing what to do with that or feeling like you have to
hide the fact that you’re frustrated. I think there’s this idea that you’re
somehow supposed to just excuse problematic content and ignore it and
not talk about it. That talking about it is a problem. No! It’s not a problem. I
think you’re absolutely right to identify it. And I think that we can have
these conversations and that we should have these conversations. So I hope that
this was helpful. Let me know if you have ever had this issue with reading older
works and how you have addressed it. And I will talk to you later. Bye now!!

local_offerevent_note October 3, 2019

account_box Matthew Anderson


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