By Danny Wicentowski
James Joyce’s “Ulysses” dares you to try to read it. Thick as a phonebook and infinitely denser, the modernist masterpiece is notorious for its ability to break the will of even the most dedicated literati. While the book’s value was questioned on grounds of obscenity in 1921, the 21st century finds the value of literature itself uncertain in an environment populated by new forms of media.
So why bother with Ulysses? Why bother with fiction at all?
Such was the question that followed the release of President Obama’s summer reading list, which included four works of fiction, such as “The Bayou Trilogy,” a collection by Daniel Woodrell, and “Rodin’s Debutante” by Ward Just. President Bush, by comparison, consistently chose weighty works of history and political theory for his reading list.
Notably, conservative columnist and radio host Michael Medved wrote, “Does it make sense for the president of the United States to carve time out of his busy schedule to read novels?”
Medved implies that a novel — by its very nature — is a waste of time, only meant for “relaxation.” So the question isn’t only whether President Obama should indulge in fiction, but whether anyone should.
Jonah Lehrer, author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” is a firm believer in the value of literature, especially the difficult variety.
“Literature really requires that you do something that’s a little more sophisticated from the perspective of your brain,” said Lehrer, also a contributing writer at Wired magazine.