When I was 17 my mother told me that good writing goes a long way in the professional workplace. My father, meanwhile, would lovingly lambast engineering colleagues who could not compose syntactically sound sentences. This is not my attempt to impose a holier-than-thou attitude on STEM. In fact, I greatly admire the dedication and mental assiduousness that works in tandem with deriving multivariable functions and designing robotic controls in the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design. In fact, I believe the innovative thinking biomedical engineers use to 3-D print lung tissue is analogous to the novelist’s efforts to divine meaning from the cosmos: Both, in their own way, push boundaries. But this Literati imperative — that is, the writer’s endeavor to shine light on derangement, despair and delight — is in danger of being eclipsed by the typical Yalie’s propensity to privilege academic efficiency over intellectual enrichment.
At the risk of pushing pretentiousness, why does the world of the Literati matter? Why do arts and letters, both ancient and contemporary, hold equal intellectual value as scientific pursuits that yield higher salaries after graduation? The world of the Literati matters because exceptional literature is deeply intertwined with culture, linguistics, critical thinking and creativity. It’s an art that transcends the oftentimes black-and-white nature of mathematics to highlight the inevitability of gray truths. Literature plays with in-between netherworlds that prod the status quo and subvert social order. As David Foster Wallace once said, good fiction comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comforted.
In 2014 the Pew Research Center reported that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. Moreover, a 2005 Gallup poll stated that the number of non-book readers in America has nearly tripled since 1978. Lastly, a 2014 study by Common Sense Media alleged that 45 percent of 17 year olds read by choice only once or twice each year. This sharp decline in American readership is no mystery: We crave the brief serotonin bursts offered by flashy technological devices. At Yale, a popular Facebook post or cryptic email mentioning a secret society interview are far more interesting than the perceived solitude that comes with opening a Shakespearean play in a residential college library. The digital age has almost single-handedly introduced a cultural epidemic of ADHD, making it even more difficult to soak in the vivid imagery of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
Indeed, it’s easy to become lost in this pragmatic shuffle — the sequence of clicking and scrolling that will eventually sustain high GPAs. But the constant pursuit of instantaneous information delivery for short-term academic achievement undermines our genuine intellectual muscles that work in slower fashion. The irony, of course, is that the donors who built our libraries were products of a different time — a time when touching a prized page of “Don Quixote” or “Robinson Crusoe” was a standard benchmark of collegiate achievement. They didn’t envision a swath of students storming ornate literary vestibules only to sit down and mindlessly click mouse pads on gold-plated tables. Such robotic completion of academic tasks ignores the virtue of resting in a plush chair to delve into the beautiful complexity of a novel. Thoughtfully plowing through a barrage of words that come together in a profound twist of literary fate trumps writing a monotonous reading response on Microsoft Word any day.
Let me conclude by divulging a secret of mine that I’ve withheld from the public for far too long. When I was an angsty 17-year-old high school track star I got a $20 tattoo of a pair of wings on my lower left ankle in a friend’s basement. Yes. My spontaneous ink outburst was incredibly stupid, and for a couple of years I narcissistically told surprised friends that the wings were a symbol of running speed. They were not. I stamped myself with indelible — literary — ink because Toni Morrison spoke to me through “Song of Solomon” when her main character, Milkman, took flight on her novel’s last page. In typical lyrical fashion, Morrison claimed that “if you surrender to the air, you can really ride it.” Well, I like to think that if you surrender to literature, you can really ride its enchanting wave of cosmic brilliance.
Without further ado, welcome to the world of the Literati.
Isaac Amend is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .