Thorpe, Peter. Why Literature Is Bad for You. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0-88229-745-7.
Techies like myself often have little patience with students of the humanities, particularly those argumentative types ill-informed in anything outside their speciality often found around university campuses. After escaping from an encounter with one of these creatures, a common reaction is to shrug one's shoulders and mutter “English majors…”. I'd always assumed it was a selection effect: a career which involves reading made-up stories and then arguing vociferously about small details in them just naturally appeals to dopey people who those more engaged in the real world inevitably find tedious and irritating. But here's a book written by a professor of English Literature who argues that immersion in the humanities manufactures such people, wrecking the minds and often the lives of those who would have otherwise made well-balanced and successful accountants, scientists, physicians, engineers, or members of other productive professions.

This is either one of the most astonishing exemplars of academic apostasy ever written, or such a dry satire (which, it should be noted, is one of the author's fields of professional interest) that it slips beneath the radar of almost everybody who reads it. Peter Thorpe was a tenured (to be sure, otherwise this book would have been career suicide) associate professor of English at the University of Colorado when, around 1980, he went through what must have been a king-Hell existential mid-life crisis and penned this book which, for all its heresies, didn't wreck his career: here's a recent biography.

In any case, the message is incendiary. A professor of English Literature steps up to the podium to argue that intensive exposure to the Great Books which undergraduate and graduate students in English and their professors consider their “day job” is highly destructive to their psyches, as can be observed by the dysfunctional behaviour manifest in the denizens of a university department of humanities. So dubious is Thorpe that such departments have anything to do with human values, that he consistently encloses “humanities” in scare quotes.

Rather than attempting to recapitulate the arguments of this short and immensely entertaining polemic, I will simply cite the titles of the five parts and list the ways in which Thorpe deems the study of literature pernicious in each.

  1. Seven Types of Immaturity
    “Outgrowing” loved ones; addiction to and fomenting crises; refusal to co-operate deemed a virtue; fatalism as an excuse; self-centredness instead of self-knowledge; lust for revenge; hatred and disrespect for elders and authority.
  2. Seven Avenues to Unawareness
    Imputing “motivation” where it doesn't exist; pigeonholing people into categories; projecting one's own feelings onto others; replacement of one's own feelings with those of others; encouragement of laziness—it's easier to read than to do; excessive tolerance for incompetence; encouraging hostility and aggression.
  3. Five Avenues to Unhappiness
    Clinically or borderline paranoia, obsession with the past, materialism or irrational anti-materialism, expectation of gratitude when none is due, and being so worry-prone as to risk stomach ulcers (lighten up—this book was published two years before the discovery of H. pylori).
  4. Four Ways to Decrease Our Mental Powers
    Misuse of opinion, faulty and false memories, dishonest use of evidence, and belief that ideas do not have consequences.
  5. Four Ways to Failing to Communicate
    Distorting the language, writing poorly, gossipping and invading the privacy of others, and advocating or tolerating censorship.

That's a pretty damning bill of particulars, isn't it? Most of these indictments of the rôle of literature in inducing these dysfunctions are illustrated by fictionalised anecdotes based on individuals the author has encountered in English departments during his career. Some of the stories and arguments for how devotion to literature is the root cause of the pathology of the people who study it seem a tad over the top to this engineer, but then I haven't spent my whole adult life in an English Lit. department! The writing is entertaining and the author remains true to his profession in invoking a multitude of literary allusions to bolster his points. Whatever, it's comforting to believe that when you took advantage of Cliff's Notes to survive those soporific equation-free requirements for graduation you weren't (entirely) being lazy but also protecting your sanity and moral compass!

The book is out of print, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive. Special thanks to the visitor who recommended this book.

November 2005 Permalink