No sooner had essays and novels emerged as popular literary forms in seventeenth-century Europe than readers came to seek in them the kinds of spiritual and practical guidance they had always found in more overtly philosophical works like Ecclesiastes and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The eighteenth-century novelist Samuel Richardson was certainly aware of this when he extracted what he called “moral and instructive sentiments, maxims, cautions, and reflexions” from his own novels and published them as a separate volume. The desire to distill wisdom from literature is still with us, albeit with a contemporary self-help bent. Consider William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Both books take well-known literary texts and use them to show how the reader might learn to lead a better life, though the authors’ tactics—and degrees of success—differ as profoundly as their destinations. A Columbia Ph.D. and former Yale faculty member, Deresiewicz has positioned himself as a polemicist bent on exposing (to borrow the title of his widely discussed 2008 essay in the American Scholar) “the disadvantages of an elite education.” There he insists that Yale and its peers “forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers,” observing that there’s now no place at such schools for the searchers and inquiring minds that educational institutions might once have welcomed. Deresiewicz confidently embraces, in other words, the narrative of decline that structures so many accounts of contemporary—well, fill in the blank: education, literacy, morality, youth itself.
more from Jenny Davidson at Bookforum here.