So, when I wrote on reading drama, I was perhaps too optimistic. When I said that drama is a break from prose fiction and that it can be read more quickly, I didn’t take into account that drama, like, I suppose, all genres, can get repetitive. I made the mistake of reading only one author, a volume of six plays by Ibsen; they’re brilliant, but once you read one play about boring middle-class life, your first response is rarely to go out and read five more.
But even after Ibsen went back on the bookshelf, I still wasn’t in the mood for fiction, or even narrative nonfiction. To give myself a break from Ibsen, I started reading A People’s History of the United States, a book I’ve read on and off for a couple years, and it quickly dominated my reading schedule to the exclusion of drama. When I was done, I was also done with Ibsen (though only for the time being—I see no flaw in starting and stopping a book); I was hooked on nonfiction, and not the creative kind. I want history, politics, economics, philosophy. And so, I’m chugging through Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche (whose name is the very reason they invented spellcheck) and then plan to get through a volume of selected Marx, another one of my on and off projects.
What is this compulsion I have, though? Most of my compulsions are born out of neurosis, but reading is a different breed than worrying if I caught malaria or making sure the things on my desk are stacked the right way. And why is it that my alma mater—and I assume lots of colleges do this—lump literature and philosophy into a single category in general education? Why did T.S. Eliot get a degree in philosophy?
It goes back to Aristotle, as do many things. His theory, although this is a rough and probably mangling rephrasing, is that poetry (or literature) is a mediation between philosophy and history, though today we could add fields such as the social sciences. Philosophy deals in the abstract and universal through abstract and universal means, while history deals with the particular and concrete through particular and concrete means; literature deals with the universal, but it does so through the particular. Despite their differences, there is a relation between literature and the ideas-based disciplines such as philosophy and the social sciences. For instance, Sir Philip Sidney enhances Aristotle’s thesis by arguing that poetry is a supreme form of philosophy (again, probably a botched explanation) because it is a more convincing way to transmit ideas.
To quote another classic maxim, literature should, in the words of Horace, “entertain and instruct.” Reading fiction covers the entertainment portion: we learn style, structure, character creation, and the other aspects of literature that appeal to the aesthetic. But there’s little point to a beautiful novel that has nothing to say, and poetry is not constructed by beautiful phrasing alone. Reading ideas—philosophy, history, sociology—allows us to give the depth to our writing that distinguishes the best writing. Writers must deal in art and ideas, which means that we cannot live (or read) by literature alone, because literature is not made by literature alone.