Why Trilling Matters
(Yale University Press, 2011)
If we believe Adam Kirsch’s new book, Why Trilling Matters, remembering literary critic Lionel Trilling is to gain an idea of what it means to live a life in literature. For what Trilling accomplished in his many decades of writing, and more importantly reading, is, according to Kirsch, nothing less than live a dignified and just life through measuring and creating himself “through and against the books” he read.
A number of books, all intent on offering a reason for literature as central to life, have been published recently, notably The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch Books, 2010) by Los Angeles Times critic David Ulin and All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (Simon & Schuster, 2011) by philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. Collectively, these books aim to counter news of closing bookstores, ever decreasing humanities funding in universities, and an overall sense that literature is being reduced to a subculture.
The books want more than an audience for literature—they want engagement with literature as necessary to having a good life, and in Kirsch’s case with Trilling, necessary to being a good citizen. The books offer various diagnoses about why literature needs to be affirmed in this matter—a rising nihilism for Dreyfus and Kelly, for Ulin, divided attention spans making reading difficult if not impossible. Both of these states contribute to Kirsch’s problem, which is the condition in which “culture does not greatly affect us, for good or bad. As with any other commodity in out of consumer society, we can take or leave it according to taste.”
Kirsch’s method for offering an alternative to this condition is to use Trilling as an example of a full, politically invested life lived with the guidance of literature. Accessible, the short book reads like a series of taut essays, and the Trilling on whom Kirsch focuses is a man who struggled with his own failings and fell upon times of moral uncertainty mirrored in the books he loved.
In Trilling’s struggles—as an aspiring novelist that struggled to fulfill that dream, as a Jew trying to break through the WASP barriers at Columbia, as a public figure curiously quiet on the issue of Vietnam, and as a teacher torn about one of his brightest yet troubled students, the developing Allen Ginsberg—Kirsch locates a heroic reader who saw literature as the proper equipment to take on the larger problems of his life. The emphasis is on how the act of reading can be an act in the world, and in this wish, Kirsch’s book makes the argument for finding time for literature in an oversaturated world.
Literature is proper equipment, but, as Kirsch demonstrates, it is also strange equipment. In order for literature to affect us for good and bad, it must emerge as a crisis in the reader, as a difficulty. For Trilling, the liberalism that makes modern literature both necessary and frustrating—the moral imperative to question and rebel against convention and unmoor society from those conventions if necessary—came into constant conflict with his moral realism—the need to affirm certain patterns and traditions in order to live. For Kirsch, if the reader is fully engaged, this dialectic is where literature continues to live, the place where we cannot take or leave culture according to taste, and where reading makes a contribution to every pressing problem of the day.
Convincing people that this difficulty deserves a place in their lives is a tough prospect, but Kirsch makes a compelling case. If a contemporary person must force themselves from the flow of headlines, 140 character emoting, and painfully short attention spans, they need a good and forceful reason, and Kirsch feels he has found that reason in the life of Trilling. To let an idea of literature as crisis lapse or ease into apathy is a price society cannot afford.