What Star Wars Taught Me (or not) About Literary Knowledge

This is the sixth in a series of posts for the Writing Blog by Ryan Sheldon ’13.

So far, I’ve dealt almost exclusively with the influence of particular texts on literary development. It occurs to me that we might invert the question: How are we influenced by what we haven’t actually read? How long are the shadows cast by gaps in our literary knowledge?

I’ll approach this by way of a tangential and self-sympathizing analogy: as a child, I never saw any of the original Star Wars films.

Yoda references—not all that abstruse, it so happens.

I haven’t seen them since then, either (I tried to get through Episode IV and fell asleep, something I took as a grand cosmic sign that I’m simply not meant to watch the movies). I’ll admit to being ashamed of this—sure, it’s a besmirchment on my cultural upbringing—but I ultimately don’t find myself all that out of the loop in most everyday situations. I know Chewbacca was a wookie. I know you could make the argument that Han Solo was Harrison Ford at his most badass. I can recognize Yoda’s distinctively garbled syntax.

Luke, I am your father; I find your lack of faith disturbing…and so on.

My pop-culture lexicon ain’t so impoverished, right? I catch ninety percent of Star Wars allusions and references, and I’m even able to drop a few myself when the situation calls for it. My question is whether or not secondhand literary knowledge is as portable as pop culture—it’s not as easily answered as you might think. Furthermore, we might ask if such obviously scant familiarity is equally stigmatized, whether in a RuHo audience or more serious academic settings.

My literary base of knowledge is full of glaring absences, and thankfully, it seems I’m not alone in that—check this Paris Review Daily advice column post by Lorin Stein. I couldn’t help but consider this project’s subject of inquiry when I saw this. Is it possible that we can glean enough from partial readings of books—even cursory familiarizations with their plots and reputations—to be able to discuss those literary works in meaningful ways? Are we influenced by the mysterious aura of an unopened text? And why do we feel compelled to lie about what we’ve read? Should we scorn our colleagues and friends for not having read books or pieces we regard as important (or ones that have been deemed canonically significant)?

All will be forgiven, Lorin

Stein writes: “Just this morning—at five o’clock, to be exact—I was staring at the ceiling,
thinking about Krapp’s Last Tape and how shocked my favorite college professor would be if he knew I still haven’t seen or read it. At least I hope he’d be shocked.” It seems that if you’re a human being, you’re bound to be under-read in some area, regardless of how literate you fancy yourself. And if you care about books, you’ll most likely misrepresent your background of knowledge at some point in your life, simply by force of insecurity. Which is a damn shame. It’s also why, thankfully, our friends and professors will more often than not encourage us to read new, fresh material for our benefit and not out of self-inflating habit. There’s solidarity in a love of books and writing, and exchanging perspectives on new and classical titles alike is a luxury we enjoy as members of a literary community.

I’ve got the illustrious TPR editor’s back. I’ll admit to discussing authors whose work I’ve barely touched—not for the sake of self-aggrandizement, but rather out of self-consciousness. I can make similar confessions here—I haven’t read DFW’s Infinite Jest. Or any Proust. Or Thomas Mann. My background in Bellow and Pynchon is nigh anorexic. I’ve never seriously read any DeLillo. I ended up passing over a good bit of Anna Karenina (that one’s pretty shameful, I know—but I trust you’ll forgive me!).

We can turn this into a group therapy exercise. I’d like to invite readers to make similar admissions in the comments if they’re so inclined—there’s nothing like a little confessional dialogue to clear the air.

But if you’re big on literary self-flagellation and you’d like to start agonizing over your reading list (and even if not), check back soon for a look at What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, a scintillating roundtable discussion on undergrad education from the lovely folks at n+1!

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