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Literature / Why Literature Is Bad for You

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"Odysseus was a negligent husband. Richard the Third was a cruel megalomaniac. Captain Ahab was an obsessive nut. Dean Moriarty was an irresponsible bum. An English professor grown skeptical looks at the moral turpitude embodied in the 'great books' and wonders just what the literati are calling sublime."

Why Literature Is Bad for You is a semi-non fictional book authored by English Professor Peter Thorpe, discussing many stories based on his own experiences of the detrimental effects literature can have in the wrong mindset. The book is divided Into five sections:


  1. Seven Types of Immaturity.note 
  2. Seven Avenues to Unawareness.note 
  3. Five Avenues to Unhappiness.note 
  4. Four Ways to Decrease Our Mental Powers.note 
  5. Four Ways of Failing to Communicate.note 

Tropes discussed in the book:

  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Discussed in "How Reading Makes Us Lazy." The argument is that reading gives us the illusion of having done something without really doing anything at all.
  • Determinator: Deconstructed in "The Fine Art of Uncooperation," as the book argues that too much exposure to this trope turns people into those "who go around looking for something to disagree with."
  • Failure Hero: In "Our High Toleration of Incompetence," Thorpe argues that overexposure to this trope leads to people accepting incompetence as a way of life. He goes on to point out how Achilles, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, and others all made significant mistakes in some way, and how literature often bases itself on someone screwing something up.
  • Gone Horribly Right: As a whole, the book talks about how many people in English departments reflect the traits of the characters and stories they read — it's just that, according to the book, they tend to reflect the worst parts.
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  • Gone Horribly Wrong: The preface talks about how attempts to educate using art have actually been detrimental in the long run.
    "Several years ago I heard an eminent English professor give a speech attacking a retired millionaire industrialist who wanted to endow a professorial chair dedicated to "The Fight Against Communism." The professor correctly argued that an endowment based on a preconceived thesis would go against the very purpose of the university which was the free and open pursuit of truth, whatever that truth might turn out to be. Nobody stopped to consider that the discipline of the "humanities" also went forward on a preconceived thesis—-that art is good for people. Perhaps we were too busy dragging reluctant science majors and engineers into our classrooms to "broaden" them by force-feeding them with famous works of art. We felt it was our responsibility to "humanize" these "rigid technicians" before they got out into the world where they could damage civilization with their weapons and pollutants. Now, years later, as I look back on it I feel that we not only failed to humanize them but actually succeeded in making them more inflexible and Insensitive than they might have been before they were sent up to us. I feel that in those required courses we gave them enough exposure to the corrupting powers of art to make them more narrow, immature, and dishonest than they might have been before. We called this "awareness" and told them they couldn't achieve dignity without it."
  • Gossipy Hens: In "Why We Gossip," the author theorizes that since literature is essentially peering into other characters' private lives, it tends to turn literature students into these.
  • It's All About Me: "Growing Down with the Victorian Novel: The Transformation of Barbara Tieterman" and "Turning Self-Knowledge Into Self-Centeredness" discusses how literature can turn people into narcissistic personalities.
  • Insufferable Genius / Took A Level In Jerk Ass: "Growing Down with the Victorian Novel: The Transformation of Barbara Tieterman" discusses how the eponymous woman became a literary genius in college, but also became so obsessive about literature (particularly Victorian era literature about unstable relationships) that it destroyed her relationship with her husband and turned her into a nasty, obsessive sociopath who willingly had an abortion just because she didn't want raising a child to interfere with her work!
  • Kids Are Cruel: Quoted as an analogy at the end of "Growing Down with the Victorian Novel";
    "I return to Barbara Tieterman to think again of her lust for unstable and rapidly shirting human relationships. O where are you tonight, Barbara? Where do you wander? I heard you got your Ph.D. (with honors, of course) and that you got an instructorship at one of the Big Ten. Was it Wisconsin? Minnesota? I heard that you had tired of the Victorians and moved into the Renaissance, after which you switched to the French Symbolistes, having gotten hooked on Mallarme. I heard that you were doing well. You're a rather extreme case, but you make a beautiful symbol. You stand so well for mutability. You stand so well for the truth that those who live with the great books become not more grown up but more childish, more intolerant of those stable, long-term relationships which define responsible adult life. Anyone who puts art before family and friends is a child, and children are often cruel."
  • Mad Artist: Discussed in "Does Literature Cause Insanity?" The author believes it does.
    "In technology and 'hard' science, the subject matter is distinct from our lives; in social science it is our lives; but in the arts it is an imitation of our lives. If we become too involved in the beautiful illusion, we can begin to lose touch with the real thing."
  • Measuring the Marigolds: Discussed in "The Art of Categorizing Individuals and Oversimplifying Human Nature," which essentially argues that spending too much time with characters, rather than real people, tends to make people want to put real human beings into types or tropes.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Another mark against authors in "How Literature Makes Us Project."
    "But our authors, and our psychiatrists too, are interested primarily in the unique individual, the singular and even the abnormal man or woman. Because creative geniuses themselves tend to be 'different', full of peculiarities and hangups, it's not surprising that they choose abnormal people like themselves to write about."
  • Motive Misidentification: Discussed in "Misunderstanding Motivation." That is, literature tempts people to give others motives that make sense, when they might actually have no rational motive at all.
  • Nervous Wreck: Thorpe claims that literature has a tendency to encourage this, claiming "a successful work of art is an eloquent display of anxious concern." He then goes on to talk about a Shakespeare scholar he knew who was a Real Life example of this trope.
  • Non-Indicative Name: The book is less about literature being bad in itself so much as the bad effects it can cause on its readers. What the book encourages is not abolishing literature, but taking a closer, harder look at our beliefs about literature and art in general to see what effects they really have on us.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Discussed in "Getting Hung Up on the Past". Since literature always draws on the past for form and inspiration, Thorpe argues it has a tendency to install a nostalgia filter on people who spend too much time reading.
  • Opinion Flip Flop: "The Misuse of Ideas" opens with an anecdote about a professor who started out preaching determinism, then in the next year slid all the way down the Sliding Scale of Free Will vs. Fate to existentialism. The author uses him as an example of someone in the arts who believes that ideas have no consequences, when in fact an idea is much more far-reaching.
  • The Paranoiac: Only one of many ways studying too much literature can drive someone nuts, according to the book.
  • Poe's Law/Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Discussed in the preface.
    "Art is usually viewed, and taught, as something that's broad, deep and flexible, packed with the variety of life itself. But there is more propaganda than truth in this. I think it would be more accurate to say that art is a rather narrow kind of phenomenon, capable of doing only a few things over and over. One of these things is approval of its subject, regardless of what it is and regardless of what the artist may have intended. Even a satirist is prohibited by the nature of art from taking a stance against the things he purports to attack, because his artistry always makes his target too natural, too interesting and attractive. We can see this in Juvenal's Third Satire, a lengthy attack on Ancient Rome, in which that decadent city is described with such detail that we'd all like to go there. The angry Juvenal well illustrates the principle that it's hard for art to be against anything. Genuine art is simply too good to repel us. It is an affirmation, often a joyous one, of practically everything that exists, whether it be good or evil. But ninety percent of art is about evil, for that's the most interesting thing to write about—-the universe being cruel to people and people being cruel to each other and to themselves."
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: As described above, art has a way of glorifying its subject and making it seem better than it actually is, regardless of how morally good it might be.
  • Revenge: Discussed in "How Literature Gives Us the Lust for Revenge," using The Merchant of Venice as an example of how Violence Really Is the Answer.
  • Satire: This book may actually be a deep-cover satire of the idea that art is worth doing and studying for its own sake. Satire and comedy were two of Peter Thorpe's academic specialties, and he cites Juvenal often.
  • Small Reference Pools: The opposite of this is addressed and a wide body of literature is referenced, such as The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Beowulf, Paradise Lost, "To His Coy Mistress", "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", "The Second Coming", Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, The Way of the World, Tom Jones, The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, the King James Bible, and essays by Montaigne, Johnson, Emerson, and Thoreau, but not in a good way. The book talks about how wide exposure to all of the "great books" can actually be detrimental in the long run.
  • True Love Is Boring: In "Growing Down with the Victorian Novel," the author believes that the pervasiveness of this trope discourages artistic people from forming committed relationships.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The author makes it clear that the stories included are technically fictional, but are based on actual experiences he's had with people and the detrimental effects literature has had on them.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Discussed in "Fate and Determinism as Cop-Outs." Thorpe is not a fan of this trope and states that many people use it an excuse from responsibility.
  • You Watch Too Much X: Essentially, this book is telling academics that they've exposed themselves to too much art.