New book: How to Do Things with Fictions, by Joshua Landy *97 (Oxford University Press)
The author: An associate professor of French at Stanford University, Landy co-founded and co-directs its Initiative in Philosophy and Literature. He also is the author of Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust.
The book: In this exploration of the function of fiction, Landy challenges the idea that texts should be informative or morally improving to be of benefit to readers. In chapters on the Gospel of Mark, Plato, Beckett, Mallarmé, and Chaucer, he argues that these are texts “whose function it is to fine-tune our mental capacities.” They give readers know-how, skills, and training. “They present themselves as spiritual exercises” and “help us become who we are.” Each of the texts he examines, he writes, “contains within itself a manual for reading, a set of implicit instructions on how it may best be used.”
Opening lines: “Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is one of my favorite books in the world, a novel I teach with as much regularity as enthusiasm. You can imagine my feeling, then, when a brilliant young student recently told me what she thought of it: ‘Morrison is pretty good,’ she said, ‘but she could have gotten to the point a bit quicker.’ Before you rush to condemn my student, let me say right away that it is not her fault; she is in the top 5 percent of the top 30 percent of the young people in the country. … But it is surely not Toni Morrison’s fault either. … Rather, it is our fault, the fault of those whose job it is to tell people how to read.”
Review: “An alternative title to Joshua Landy’s zippy work of critical theory might be: ‘how to read difficult books’; or (even more honestly) ‘why bother with difficult books at all?’” wrote Stephen Abell of The Guardian. “His answer … is simple: complicated literature (like green vegetables) is good for you. Landy believes that certain texts provide training for our minds, by actively working on the reader to expand their mental capacity. … They form and shape the reader by incorporating lessons about reading itself.”