"The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it."
"The laws of gravity can be figured out much more easily with intuition than anything else. It's a way of having experience without having to struggle through it. For a novelist, intuition is essential. Basically it's contrary to intellectualism, which is probably the thing that I detest most in the world—in the sense that the real world is turned into a kind of immovable theory. Intuition has the advantage that either it is, or it isn't. You don't struggle to try to put a round peg into a square hole."
"I do think that there are works that everyone should read because they tell us who we are as human beings living in history. I would start with the Bible, the Odyssey and the Iliad, the works of Sophocles, Chaucer, Shakespeare. I think everyone should read David Copperfield, Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights, the essays of Virginia Woolf, not only because they will—by a sort of osmosis—improve one's prose style, but because they can also sharpen one's ability to think logically, to follow an argument and understand a complex sentence. I think everyone who knows about, and cares about, literature could draw up a list of (let's say) 200 essential writers who lived before 1900. But after that things get more complex.
Should Katherine Mansfield be included in the canon? Certainly. James Baldwin? Without a doubt. And what about contemporary writers? Are there any we must read, or is it somehow understood that canonical means dead? Given how nebulous and (despite the efforts of Bloom and others to codify matters) how personal the list of canonical authors seems to be, I would be in favor of expanding the canon rather than narrowing it down, of enlarging the guest list rather than disinviting the writers we no longer want at the party. Since the question of canonical versus noncanonical seems to matter most urgently in academic circles, I would argue for an approach to teaching literature that focuses less on some notion of literary immortality than on those works that still have the power to engage us. Rather than the dutiful slog through everything of importance written during a particular century, perhaps professors might want to choose from that time the half dozen books that they most passionately love, books that have awoken them to the pleasures and beauties of that period in our history and culture.
The house of art, after all, is large enough to have room for many guests. Robert Walser? Amos Tutuola? Patrick Hamilton? Jane Bowles? Elizabeth Taylor? Naguib Mahfouz? You're on the list. Welcome to the canon."
What is literature for?
"Recently, a friend said to me, 'Hey, George, if a space alien beamed you up to his ship and demanded that you explain what being human is like, what would you say?' 'Well,' I said, 'I'd advise the alien to spend a few days reading short stories.' Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life's dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live. Except how it feels to lose one's car in a parking garage and walk around for like three hours, trying to look as if you know where you're going, so the people driving by—who have easily found their cars, having written the location on their wrists or something—don't think badly of you. I don't think there's a short story about that yet."
"Good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories. I've never seen a really good story that is immoral, and I think there is something in us which impels us towards good stories. If we have people who produce them, we are lucky...
I feel that there has to be a purpose to what we do. If there was no hope at all, we should just sleep or drink and wait for death. But we don't want to do that. And why? I think something tells us that we should struggle. We don't really know why we should struggle, but we do, because we think it's better than sitting down and waiting for calamity. So that's my sense of the meaning of life. That's really how I would put it, that we struggle, and because we struggle, that struggle has to be told, the story of that struggle has to be conveyed to another generation. You have struggle and story, and these two are quite enough for me."
Walt Whitman on reading
from Democratic Vistas
"the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in the highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast's struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does."
Books for pleasure
Alice Munroe, On the story
"A story is not like a road to follow...it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you."
Edward Hirsch, How to read poetry
Philip Levine's Poet Laureate reading