This has all been on my mind for a while now, but a blurb in this week's edition of "Newsweek" has compelled me to finally write all of this down to share. The blurb is talking about kids who are getting excused from summer camp to go to midnight releases of Harry Potter books. Years ago, I don't think that many people would even dream there'd be anything that could bring large groups of completely agog kids to a bookstore in the middle of the night. Of course, not everyone is pleased with all of this excitement, and I am not just talking about some of the religious crowd. Right below this story is a picture of Yale humanities professor Harold Bloom and comments that he made in a brief interview. One part shows his list of the top 5 or so most influential literary works of all time where he praises Shakespeare, the Iliad, The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, and a few other titles I'm proud to say that I had never even heard of before.

He goes on to say that he thinks the "Alice books" by some person named "Carroll" or something are his favorite books to share with his children and that they will be immortalized while Harry Potter will end up in the "rubbish bin"(in an editorial that Bloom wrote in the New York Times, he compares what he thinks will happen to Potter in the future to what he has perceived as a decline in Lord of the Rings hysteria, which has actually only grown more popular as generations have passed and has inspired a movie series which was far more popular than any movie adaptation of any sorry-ass Shakespeare play). He goes on to say that the popularity of Harry Potter is "an indictment of the descent of the world into subliteracy". This snob (I won't flatter Bloom by inaccurately describing him as "an intellectual elitist") has similar disdain for authors such as Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and other populist authors.

I'll begin this whole polemic by making a few points about Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Jr. Both were outstanding orators, and the former is held in complete contempt by academia while the latter is held in high esteem. Academics believe that the excellent speaking ability of Ronald Reagan is largely what maintained Reagan's popularity and his seat in office. For this reason they see him as having been a dangerous individual who could promote asinine idea to the public by appealing to emotion and not reason. This is a completely legitimate criticism. Of course, they usually do not hold the same standard to Dr. MLK Jr. While there were a handful or black and white intellectuals in King's time making very well constructed arguments for the civil rights movement, academics choose to focus all of their praise on King. While it may not seem that arguing the case for the civil rights movement would be a big task, one can read these works and see they constructed well-thought-out arguments that most people would never think of. King's speeches gave people goose bumps and brought them to tears just as Reagan's speeches had, but like Reagan's speeches, they were filled with poignant poetry rather than any actual argumentation. If these speeches were paraphrased so that they sounded dry but conveyed the exact same concepts and principles, not only would the speeches not have been as famous as they would have been, they could have been completely useless for appealing to reason or to emotions. In truth, there is no difference between Adolph Hitler and these two men except for the fact that they were benevolent and were generally good-natured.

The question I want all of you to consider and the question I think I have found an answer for (of which giving the answer is the main purpose of this paper) is what really determines what poetry and prose is considered "academic" or "legitimate" by the self-proclaimed "critics"? What determines what works you will read in high school and college English and literature classes? I remember reading on one particular blog (it was not a well-known blog, and I don't recall whose it was) a comparison between some words in one of George W. Bush's state of the union address and some words that Abraham Lincoln had once spoken. The Lincoln words were obviously more eloquent sounding and the blogger used this as evidence of declining literacy, if not overall cognitive and/or reasoning ability of Americans today compared with Americans in previous generations. At first it seemed convincing to me and I was ashamed that I was not clear on what Lincoln had meant in the words that he had spoken. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that the only difference between language such as the kind Lincoln used and the supposedly "dumbed down" or "simplified" language that is used in popular books and culture today is that in old language they have more wordy and more complex ways of conveying the exact same idea. Of course I'm not a big fan of too many things in popular American culture, and am certainly no fan of public education, the fact that people prefer Rowling over Wordsworth is hardly a symptom of the problem.

The point I made about Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech can be applied to Shakespeare. If a person were to rewrite the plays using colloquial language that most adults and kids understand better, they would not get a second look (or a first look, for that matter) by academics. Think about this: all you do essentially change the dialogue to modern language so that the characters are essentially saying the same thing and all of the sudden it becomes garbage in the eyes of literature connoisseurs. This can only mean one thing: the only real appeal the play had was the emotional resonance created by what I am going to call verbal music. If you need evidence of this, take a literature class and notice how much emphasis is placed on things such as rhythm, rhyme schemes, alliteration, and other things that are of no importance to your contemporary modern author and reader. Harold Bloom thinks you are somehow "subliterate" if your taste in stories involves wanting to have an engaging plot rather than noticing that the author used every letter of the alphabet exactly twice in one couplet.

The mindless infatuation that people have with classics is really an infatuation with verbal music and the emotions that the language invokes in people is comparable to those that people get by listening to music. I am not insinuating that it is somehow infantile or churlish to have an appreciation for music. On the contrary, our capacity to appreciate music (and verbal music as well) is a very deep enigma that even Leohnard Euler, (perhaps the greatest mathematician of all time and perhaps one of the most under appreciated intellectuals of all time) who was nicknamed "analysis incarnate" for his uncanny ability to come up with mathematical models for real-world situations, could not really even begin to understand. It is a testament against the secular rationalist view of the mind of simply being an organic computer and for the view that there are elements that contribute to our cognizance and consciousness that are beyond the scope of the science of today. But I'm digressing. What I am saying is that calling people things like "subliterate" or "simple-minded" simply because they prefer modern literature to the more "academic" works is comparable to calling someone simple-minded or tone-deaf because they may prefer Rock and Roll to Mozart, when in reality few people would really think to question someone's intelligence or cognizance because of musical preferences.

The next question to consider is what sort of things do people like Harold Bloom think that we gain from reading "real authors"? I have no explanation for this and can only give you the meaningless words that Bloom provided in the interview. Bloom says that "our ways of thinking and feeling – about ourselves, those we love, those we hate, those we realize are hopelessly 'other' to us – are more shaped by Shakespeare than they are by the experience of our own lives." What's the man talking about? How is it that this man can say that some author whom only a few people really care about and have ready extensively can have that much influence? Much like poetry, it is really anyone's guess as to what Dr. Bloom means by this. I surmise that perhaps he thinks that Shakespeare in his time reshaped the way that people approached relationships, and that these attitudes were passed down through the generations where they still exist today. Of course, very few academics in the fields of history or anthropology would argue Shakespeare (or any "real author", for that matter) to be among the most influential figures in history. If one was to argue that he was, then he or she would be laughed completely out of the academic circles. Ironically, most hold the view that in those times it was the intellectuals rather than the orators or the bards that had the most influence. Seems the opposite is true in the modern world where Hitler, Reagan, and Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as influential people. This concept best explains how poetry has been able to become as popular as it has. Poetry is essentially an attempt to create verbal music. Has anyone really ever tried to put persuasive things into poems? I don't think I've ever seen one. If you find poetry to be silly, it simply means that the verbal music doesn't give you the "warm fuzzies" that it does enthusiasts of verbal music.

Bloom also makes the point that he feels that the characterization in Shakespeare and in Chaucer is somehow more complex than in most works and that in most other works the characters are simply "names on the page". Such an argument is not unique to Bloom but is one you will hear from numerous academics. Of course, it is never backed up with rational arguments. If anything, characterization is much stronger in longer novels than in simple five-act plays. Harry Potter consists of characters that have clearly defined personalities, but in certain circumstances they all do things that seem out of character for that person. Because of this, I'd argue just the opposite that "rubbish" Harry Potter has ideal, multi-dimensional characters and that Shakespeare's characters are simply "names on a page". My own personal theory about this goes back to the whole "verbal music concept". People will mention that they think that music "hits their soul" or "resonates with them". They do this because they can give no rational explanation for why they enjoy music (no one can, not even psychologists and brain scientists who seem to think that they have.) Similarly, it seems all this stuff about characterization is a poor attempt to try and verbalize their feelings evoked by the verbal music. They can no more explain why characterization is the most developed and complex in Shakespeare than a music lover can explain why they like music. I can't explain why people like music, but I am pretty sure the praise for the characterization of "real literature" is really a way to hide a person's infatuation with how the dialogue "sounds cool". Again consider this: if Shakespeare's plays were rewritten using more mundane language, would people argue the characters to be more "complex" or "real" than in popular literature? I think not.

What do I think makes a good story? An engaging and original plot, a good variety of interesting characters, and a theme or events that provoke thought. The truth is that "rubbish" literature can do all the same things that "real" literature can do, plus they can be an enjoyment for the reader. A good example to further illustrate this point would be to compare Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Both books have a theme dealing with the dangers of careless applied science. I don't think I need to even tell you which book would be preferred by a college literature professor. The book that would not be favored is really superior in innumerable ways. For one thing, this book is much more thrilling than the other. Second, it was written by someone who not only has a scientific background, but has lived in the twenty-first century. The other book was written by someone who lived in the nineteenth century and had very limited scientific knowledge, even by the standards of that time period. As a consequence, the scientific nightmare that occurs in the book is downright comical and doesn't create the same sense of seriousness as the first one does. The first book also has the unforgettable character of Ian Malcolm who is the wise man of the characters with has famous saying: "scientists are so preoccupied with whether or not they can do something that they don't stop to think about whether or not they should do it." Ideally, if one wants to get the point across, they should write an essay and be direct and explicit. But Crichton does about as good as you can do converting an opinion of his into his theme and using one of his characters to explicitly convey the idea rather than trying to decode Mary Shelley's story which is essentially a novelization of a lame 1950s monster movie that doesn't in any way make the argument the author would like to make. It is nothing more than an appeal to emotion that even today creates more chuckles than actual thought.

To summarize, one should not feel the least bit intellectually inadequate or stupid because they do not think Shakespeare is worth the paper that it is printed on. One should no more feel that way than they should feel they are stupid because they do not like one particular genre of music. For those that would say my education is somehow incomplete because I do not understand or appreciate Shakespeare, I'd ask you to read up on quantum mechanics or vector calculus (two subjects which I understand better than a large majority of people and better than most people probably ever could) then you might understand what I feel when I read Shakespeare and why I do not see it as the be-all and end-all of becoming a learned person. That or you can listen to a genre of music that you do not like.

Getting back to the question I posed a few paragraphs ago: what determines what poetry and pose is legitimate for a literature class? One with uncolloquial verbal music with wording ambiguous enough as to leave room for interpretation and the usual overanalysis of literature.