Watch Animated Introductions to 13 Classic Authors: Kafka, Austen, Dostoevsky, Dickens & Many More

Pop­u­lar inde­pen­dent philoso­pher Alain de Bot­ton has been pro­vid­ing mini-intro­duc­tions to aca­d­e­m­ic sub­jects for sev­er­al years now through his School of Life. These take the form of ani­mat­ed pré­cis of the life and work of a hand­ful of promi­nent authors who might be con­sid­ered rep­re­sen­ta­tive, if not essen­tial, to the dis­ci­pline. In phi­los­o­phy, we have such indis­pens­able fig­ures as Pla­to, Rene Descartes, and Immanuel Kant. In polit­i­cal the­o­ry, we have Adam Smith, John Rawls, Karl Marx. Wher­ev­er we land—conservative, lib­er­al, or radical—we end up inter­act­ing with such thinkers. When it comes to the gen­er­al cat­e­go­ry of “Lit­er­a­ture,” how­ev­er, it seems to me it should be a bit more dif­fi­cult to choose only a few fig­ure­heads.

For a good part of Euro­pean his­to­ry, most peo­ple couldn’t read the lan­guages they spoke, but even those who could were hard­ly con­sid­ered lit­er­ate. This dis­tinc­tion was reserved for elites with clas­si­cal edu­ca­tions who read Latin and usu­al­ly Greek. Lit­er­a­ture meant Vir­gil, Ovid, Horace, Homer…. Even after the Ref­or­ma­tion and the spread of lit­er­a­cy in “vul­gar” tongues, the dis­dain for com­mon tongues remained. The rad­i­cal­ism of Dante and lat­er Cer­vantes was to write great lit­er­a­ture in their nation­al lan­guages. Dur­ing the 18th cen­tu­ry, the nov­el was often con­sid­ered pri­mar­i­ly mid­dle class women’s enter­tain­ment, and in much of the 19th, a pop­u­lar diver­sion rarely wor­thy of the high­est crit­i­cal appraisal.

The 20th cen­tu­ry brought not only mod­ernist rev­o­lu­tions but social rev­o­lu­tions that opened doors for women voic­es and writ­ers pre­vi­ous­ly rel­e­gat­ed to the mar­gins. In our cur­rent age, a diver­si­ty of writ­ers now firm­ly occu­py the cen­ter of cul­ture. The oughts were dom­i­nat­ed by Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao, for exam­ple. This year’s Pulitzer win­ners include Col­son White­head and poet Tye­him­ba Jess. Nobel and Pulitzer win­ner Toni Mor­ri­son just swept up anoth­er award from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts & Sci­ences. This is not to men­tion mul­ti­ple-award-win­ning inter­na­tion­al writ­ers like Derek Wal­cott, Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez, Chi­ma­man­da Ngozi Adichie.… Ven­er­a­ble west­ern lit­er­ary tra­di­tions have become glob­al in com­po­si­tion.

But in every peri­od of lit­er­ary his­to­ry, inter­na­tion­al writ­ers inter­act­ed, cor­re­spond­ed, influ­enced, and pla­gia­rized each oth­er. There is no sin­gle line of descent through the his­to­ry of lit­er­a­ture, no sin­gu­lar impe­r­i­al sto­ry that dom­i­nates its pro­duc­tion and recep­tion. Its loca­tion varies from age to age, its fam­i­lies are mas­sive and sprawl­ing, loose­ly con­nect­ed at the edges, but some­times only very loose­ly. Per­haps it is a tes­ta­ment to the patri­cian con­ser­vatism of phi­los­o­phy that it remains a field dom­i­nat­ed by respons­es to dead great men. Lit­er­a­ture has proven much more dynam­ic. De Botton’s choic­es in his intro­duc­to­ry video series on lit­er­a­ture do not quite reflect this dynamism. Why Voltaire and not, well, Cer­vantes, gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered for cen­turies the father of the mod­ern nov­el form? Why no Faulkn­er, Gertrude Stein, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, or Toni Mor­ri­son? No Allen Gins­berg, Mar­garet Atwood, James Bald­win?

These authors and many oth­ers may sure­ly be to come. And we should bear in mind the source: not only is de Bot­ton a pop philoso­pher first and crit­ic sec­on­dar­i­ly, but he is also pro­mot­ing a schol­ar­ly approach to self-help. The authors he choos­es, there­fore, all have life lessons to impart of the kind de Bot­ton believes can help us be hap­pi­er, nicer peo­ple who have bet­ter rela­tion­ships. Charles Dick­ens, at the top, for exam­ple, teach­es us to sym­pa­thize with oth­ers and to care about “seri­ous things.” Jane Austen want­ed us to be “bet­ter and wis­er,” and her nov­els offer read­ers a course in per­son­al devel­op­ment. From the exis­ten­tial bleak­ness of Fyo­dor Dos­toyevsky, we can draw life lessons about hope and redemp­tion in the midst of human fail­ure. Even the claus­tro­pho­bic night­mares of Franz Kaf­ka have their util­i­ty as “redemp­tive, con­sol­ing art.” De Bot­ton large­ly relies on bio­graph­i­cal crit­i­cism and strays quite a ways from received inter­pre­ta­tions.

His casu­al approach to lit­er­a­ture as a didac­tic tool of per­son­al bet­ter­ment has the hall­marks of a very Vic­to­ri­an out­look, with both the draw­backs and the ben­e­fits such a view entails. While the School of Life series may have a nar­row view of who pro­duces art, cul­ture, and phi­los­o­phy, it also has a com­pelling argu­ment to make that such things mat­ter and mat­ter great­ly. The human­i­ties need all the help they can get, and de Bot­ton seems to argue that we need them more than ever as well. Most read­ers of Open Cul­ture, I imag­ine, would sure­ly agree. See de Botton’s full series, includ­ing such prac­ti­cal writ­ers as James Joyce, Mar­cel Proust, George Orwell, and Leo Tol­stoy, at the School of Life YouTube playlist.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions to 25 Philoso­phers by The School of Life: From Pla­to to Kant and Fou­cault

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Art Can Answer Life’s Big Ques­tions in Art as Ther­a­py

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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