Unreal though it seems to me, tomorrow marks the tenth anniversary of this blog. To mark the occasion, I scrolled back through the archives to see how it has evolved over the course of the decade. Although there have been a few changes (more on those in a moment), for the most part it has remained pretty much the same. The quotation from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony that led off my first entry still resonates with me as strongly as ever:
I will tell you something about stories,
They aren’t just for entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.
The blog originated at the suggestion of my marketing-oriented son following a publishing failure. After a year of searching, I had finally found a small commercial publisher for my book Better Living through Beowulf: How the Early British Classics Can Guide You beyond Terrorism Fears, Relationship Anxieties, Consumer Emptiness, Racial Tension, Political Cynicism, and Other Contemporary Challenges, only to have the deal fall through with the 2008 crash. Darien suggested I build up followers through a blog, at which point I would be able to approach publishers with more leverage. With that, I set forth.
Almost instantly, I realized that I was born to do this kind of writing. A journalist before I became a scholar, I have always sought ways to popularize literary scholarship, and blogging seemed an ideal forum. I could communicate instantly with a non-scholarly audience about ideas I considered important.
Focusing on literature’s impact was a natural focus. As I have explained in multiple blog essays, from an early age I have been interested in “reading stories”—which is to say, the stories people tell about literature that has roused strong emotions in them. After all, I knew that books had always moved me deeply, and hearing other accounts confirmed I wasn’t alone. I nodded when I read psychologically-oriented literary scholar Norman Holland describing the human urge to share one’s deep encounters with literature.
I wrote my first academic essay about literature impacting life in a Carleton College medieval history course. It was entitled “The Role of Monsters in Barbarian Society” and dealt with Beowulf. I followed that up with a senior thesis about Rousseau and Diderot’s influence on the French Revolution.
I didn’t realize until graduate school, however, that I could make such focus my life’s work. There I encountered the “reader response” scholarship of Holland and Stanley Fish and the reception theory of Hans Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser. Jauss especially caught my eye as he explored how a great work of literature could change an age’s “horizon of expectations.”
These theories shaped my teaching in the years that followed, and I encouraged my students to describe and explore their interactions with the works they read in my courses. I’ve reported on numerous student responses in this blog.
As regular readers of Better Living through Beowulf know well, I write daily posts on how literature helps me make sense of something that is going on in my life or in the world. In other words, I model the impact that literature is having on me in order to encourage others to do the same for themselves. The topics range from personal matters to politics to breaking world events, with Sundays reserved for a spiritual meditation. For a while, on Saturdays I wrote about sports but quit when I found I was repeating myself. That and dropping “Film Friday” (which diffused my focus) have been the two major changes.
I stopped writing about sports because of the limited number of stories. As the grandmother in Silko’s Ceremony says at one point, “It seems like all the stories are the same. Only the names are different.” While certain works come to mind when I see a struggling veteran, a promising rookie, a disappointing talent, an inspiring come-back story, a miraculous win, a heartbreaking defeat, they are always the same works. For instance, I applied Ralph Hodgson’s The Bull to Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and (prematurely) Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, especially the stanzas,
Pity him, this dupe of dream,
Leader of the herd again
Only in his daft old brain,
Once again the bull supreme
And bull enough to bear the part
Only in his tameless heart.
Pity him that he must wake;
Even now the swarm of flies
Blackening his bloodshot eyes
Bursts and blusters round the lake,
Scattered from the feast half-fed,
By great shadows overhead.
And the dreamer turns away
From his visionary herds
And his splendid yesterday,
Turns to meet the loathly birds
Flocking round him from the skies,
Waiting for the flesh that dies.
I was sorry to abandon “Sports Saturday” given its popularity, but I myself wasn’t learning much that was new, which is essential. The insights that emerge when one applies a literary passage to life can be remarkable, but only if the insights are fresh. I will stop blogging if I ever sense that I am becoming stale.
So far, despite having written thousands of posts and over a million words, that hasn’t happened yet. I still feel that literature is making me smarter when I apply it to aspects of life. When life and lit match up, I literally become smarter, even though I revert to my previous level of intelligence when the effects of the book have worn off. Luckily, I can always go back to poetry, fiction and drama for boost.
If you’re interested, somewhere between 250 and 400 readers visit the blog daily. The numbers are higher during the school year and during the week, lower on weekends and during holidays. Although most of the visitors are American (not surprising given my American focus), I have also had readers from England, Australia, Uganda, Slovenia, China, Iran, and other parts of the world. My largest audience is high school English teachers, which I find particularly gratifying, and I have made a number of life-long friendship with teachers. Some have contributed their own essays to the blog.
I don’t track closely which posts get visited but among the most popular have been the following:
Elizabeth and Darcy, the Perfect Couple
A Spiritual Interpretation of Waterfalls
Huck Finn’s Censorship History (written by my colleague Ben Click)
The Vital Importance of Being Gay
Blessing the Boat’s at St. Mary’s
Mary Oliver: Stepping over Every Dark Thing
Refugee Poem Changed Liberty’s Meaning (written by my colleague Donna Richardson)
In my first essay I wrote that one of my goals was
to convince readers to give the classics a chance. Or a second chance if the first encounter was a bad one. I want people to think of the classics as stories, not as dusty artifacts in a museum. Works like Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Doctor Faustus are a lot more accessible if you think of them as gripping stories rather than as “great literature.”
I like to think that this has happened. I believe more than ever that literature can make us better people, and the first step in the process is allowing it to entertain us.