Arnold Weinstein: The Dimensionality of Reading

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Arnold Weinstein (53 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

[Scott Kingsley for the Brown Alumni Magazine]

Brown University literature professor Arnold Weinstein is recalling a half-century of reading and teaching books. He’s tracing the “Morning, Noon, and Night” — in the title of his new book — of his literary life. He begins, in this conversation, with two books that he read as a senior at Princeton: Melville’s Benito Cereno and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

Benito Cereno is the story of a Spanish captain and his cargo of enslaved Africans who rebel and depose him.  In  Weinstein’s telling, it is a narrative of misunderstood power that resonates with America’s modern misadventures abroad. It is also, he says, the most cinematic writing of the 19th century. His long-held dream is to make it into a film.

It was in reading The Sound and the Fury that Weinstein began to understand the tussle between the “there and then” that dominates our inner lives and the “here and now” that constitutes our movement through public life.

I think each one of us lives exactly that ballet. We are always juggling what’s roiling inside of us versus the moves or steps in our public lives. Faulkner taught me that. … Once you see past the picturesqueness of Faulkner’s world, or the evils of both racism and sexism, … then you are confronting an extraordinarily rich picture of human maneuvering room: how you live with your inner ghosts, how you try to reach to the other. Books in that sense are profoundly ethical.

I think books are mirrors for readers. But they’re not mirrors in the lazy narcissist sense, that it’s kind of facile self-reflection. There’s labor in it. Call it a distorting mirror. It’s a picture of who you are, but it’s perhaps an elemental version of you that either you’ve never noticed, or never wanted to notice.

Arnold Weinstein with Chris Lydon in Providence, April 2011.

Professor Weinstein is sharing a profound faith in the essential nutrients of books, paired with a healthy dislike for the literary theory that has dominated the academy over the last four decades. We should read for emotion and experience, he reminds us, and remember that literature is not, as the theorists exhort, more “complex” than we realize, but rather richer and more resonant.

He’s learned, in years of leading celebrated courses on the tough masterpieces — his favorite is “Proust, Joyce and Faulkner” — that teaching literature is carrying out an injunction “that says we’re part of an ongoing life. They’re young, I’m three-score-and-ten, and these book are in many cases centuries old. There’s a kind of parallel between the blood-line in students, the blood-line in faculty and the blood-line in books. We’re there to keep these alive.”

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  • Thanks for this wonderful interview with one of the greatest teachers of literature.

  • Peter Novak

    Thank you. How fortunate the students at Brown are. Wish the conversation could have continued longer. By the way, I’m going broke buying all the books of your interlocutors.

  • This stimulating ROS interview with Prof. Arnold Weinstein on the dimensionality of reading immediately brings to mind several topics and facets:

    1. On the radio, some five years ago, Christopher Lydon asked Susan Cheever (“American Bloomsbury”) about “Moby Dick” and its import and then Chris mused out loud to himself about the “whiteness of the white” chapter.

    This chapter suggests that reality is ultimately noise and not signal. Think of the phrase “white noise”. (Electrical engineers speak of the signal-to-noise ratio.) Ahab is also outraged that Moby Dick “has no face.”

    “The Doubloon”: Chapter 99 of “Moby Dick”
    The Ecuadorian 8 Escudos doubloon, minted in Quito, Ecuador, between 1838 and 1843, is the one ounce of gold “sixteen dollar piece” Captain Ahab nails to the mast of the Pequod, promising it to the first man who “raises” Moby-Dick. The coin is first mentioned in Herman Melville’s book “Moby-Dick”, in Chapter 36 “The Quarter Deck” and later at length in Chapter 99 “The Doubloon”.
    Pip, the black teenage crewmember “flips out” when he sees the doubloon has no fixed meaning and is interpreted in all kinds of ways by different sailors depending on their “attunement.”

    This “doubloon” chapter reinforces the sense that the universe is “white noise” and “has no face.”

    Thus one dimension of reading is on a continuum “from ink to ink-ling” as shown by the impromptu musing of Chris Lydon.

    This means that Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” mentioned in the interview, is “right-wrong”: we all recoil at overstuffed Parisian bloviation. We want insight and not incite.

    2. Sartre:

    In his most uncluttered book, “Les Mots,” Sartre describes how he came to hear “the rustle of words”.

    Reading gives you “the rustle of words”. This is aural training for poetry and philosophy through musicality.

    3. Walter Benjamin and Books in Crates:

    (A note on Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting.” 1931. In Benjamin, Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1969. 59-68)

    Walter Benjamin, Unpacking my Library

    “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”:

    “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in pursuit of books!”
    “…Now I am on the last half-emptied crate, and it is way past midnight. Other thoughts fill me than the ones I am talking about—not thoughts but images, memories. Memories of the cities in which I have found so many things: Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, Paris: memories of Rosenthal’s sumptuous rooms in Munich, of the Danzog Stocktum where the late Hans Rhaue was domiciled, of Sussengut’s musty book cellar in North Berlin; memories of the rooms where these books had been housed, of my student’s den in Munich, of my room in Bern, of the solitude of Iseltwald on the Lake of Brienz, and finally of my boyhood room, the former location of only four or five of the several thousand volumes that are piled up around me…. For a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to things. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” –Walter Benjamin, Unpacking my Library

    4. Montaigne, The Commerce of Reading:

    Of three commerces, i.e. familiarities with men, women, and books.

    I never travel without books, either in peace or war; and yet I sometimes pass over several days, and sometimes months, without looking at them; I will read by and by, say I to myself, and rest content in this consideration, that I have them by me, to divert myself with them when I am so disposed, and call to mind what an ease and assistance they are to my life. ‘Tis the best viaticum I have yet found out for this human journey, and I very much pity those men of understanding who are unprovided with it.

  • jim

    I wonder if anyone would care to take further the statement that professor Weinstein made regarding the captain’s discovery that what he thought was position or title (perhaps entitlement), was actually a posture (a poser?). It seems that there is so much relevant thought here that is applicable to what we find and deal with everyday. Especially when we find ourselves exchanging what is, for what seems to be needed or expected. Maybe it is selling what is authentic in exchange for what is deemed urgent.

    Chris, maybe one of your learned listeners would like to take this further, I want to know more.

    Jim from OKC, OK

  • Kurt

    Absolutely loved this interview and have listened to it over and over. So many thoughts triggered and so many curiosities engaged. I look forward to reading Benito Cereno. Thanks for the interview and the podcast!

  • Such great conversation. Such important conversation. Conversations like this could save the country. If we would only have them.

    Not so much because they have the truth, or the answers. Rather because they have the questions. And if not ‘the question’ the questions and inquiry that leads to the question. And the seriousness, and wit, and humility necessary to hear the answer in the breeze.
    Or… the turning of a page….

    How to read? And to be aware of being read by a book…. Oh my! Such delicate insights.

    Is Thank You, thanks enough? Not just for this, but for the body of work that is ROS.
    No it isnt. But for now: Thanks.


  • I always feel my life enriched by Christopher Lydon’s sense of wonder. Working on seeing differently, now. Thank you!


  • This was wonderful, I listened to it twice, and it sent me to read “Benito Cerano” for the first time, as well as some critical commentary about it. Open Source has, in fact, been a wonderful recommender of the books in the time I’ve been listening — I’ve got you to thank for “Tinkers” long before it won the prize, and there are others I’m not able to call to mind at the moment. But I get such a lift every time a new Open Source shows up in my podcast list, regardless of the topic — they’re all fascinating and mind-expanding. Thanks so much.

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  • Myrtle

    I recently came upon Open Source and am thrilled with the range of mentally and spiritually engaging conversations. Another outstanding interview! I was struck by what Arnold Weinstein had to say about Coetzee’s book, “Disgrace”, that it ultimately had to do with letting go of youth and learning to make friends with death. Such spiritual insight!!

    Thank you, Chris, for being such an well-informed, enthusiastic and sensitive interviewer. I’ve been relishing your outstanding interviews about literature and poetry with Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler. I’ve cut back substantially on my diet of dvd take-outs.