I’m one subject away from having a degree in English Literature. I have been passionately reading my whole life. I’ve restored to books when I was happy, when I was sad, when I did not understand what was going on and also when I knew but needed a break from reality. In school, college and more importantly, at home, I was tought to be critical: I was told I would encounter injustices and I had the right to complain. I was also told there are some fights worth engaging in and some others it’s best to leave unfought and to distinguish them, one needs some critical thinking. It takes critical thinking to choose your President, but also to choose simpler things in life such as the books you decide to read. In a world where literature is also a consumer good, with its pros and cons, it is highly important to decide in what we are spending the finite time we have to read. Sometimes we will make the right decision and some others we will not, but the more we read, the more likely we are to make great decisions.
All this comes from a recent exploration of criticism from both personal and professional issues. The more attention I pay, the more I see some people overcriticize the world and some others undercriticize it and I wonder which side to take, for I have felt the need to take one.
On the one hand, my education and my environment tought me to be critical of what I read, what I see and even what I like. Questioning the outside world has always been an everyday issue for me. I still remember my mother criticizing Disney movies while I spent whole evenings watching them: “Oh poor Cinderella – she would say – she needs Prince Charming to be happy. There are so many other things in life that could make her happier!” And so on, and so forth. But recently, I have seen this criticism go too far, as far as saying that everything is wrong in the world (and the “system”). I have seen people ranting so passionately about everything that I asked myself if they would ever be happy. I asked myself if I wanted to be like them. Of course, I see there are horrible things happening in the world. But am I willing to let them lead my life?
On the other hand, I have encountered people who do not criticize anything at all: everything’s valid for them and none of us should criticize anyone or anything. I must admit, since my PhD research is very much focused on morality, I partly agree with them. Who are we to question other people’s beliefs? However, this is not a side I 100% agree with and this is the reason why:
Some recent discussion among a dear group of friends focused on a literary phenomenon I could not dislike more. The feminist in me wants to yell, write a manifest and question the world about the work: why does it sell so much and the opposite idea is unthinkable? The relativist in me thinks people should read whatever they want to. But I ask, are we really free to read what we want or are we subjected to fashion and deep-rooted ideas?
All this made me think of my role both as a blogger and as a future professor of English literature. How valid is that I trash someone else’s work? How valid is that I do not and prevent my future students from being critical? Not all of us can diagnose a patient, but people think everyone can diagnose a book, after all, who cares about an English Literature degree? Apparently, our degree does not make our evaluation of books more informed or more justified, it does not cast a wider interpretation of the ideas on the text.
All this ranting comes from sitting and observing the world, it comes from talking to my friends and it also comes from watching the 10 best-selling books of the last months. I agree, let people read what they want to, but let them also think critically about what they are reading. Teach them history, philosophy, feminism, postcolonial and queer theory. Give them Foucault, Freud, Atwood, Jamaica Kincaid and Zadie Smith. Give them the freedom they think they have to judge the world, but do not let them turn into angry men. Let them remember there are good things in the world too.