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Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.

The Educated Imagination - Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye, who passed away in 1991, was one of the great minds of literary criticism and theory. THE EDUCATED IMAGINATION is comprised of his six Massey Lectures, which he read over the CBC in 1962. These lectures present key concepts from Frye's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM: FOUR ESSAYS.

The book explores the idea that literature is the most valuable of studies because it educates the imagination, where (as the blurb from COLLEGE ENGLISH states) we live everyday of our lives, in all our private and public decisions . . . and of course it enables us to read our books with joy.

Fascinating stuff, and Frye's style is so direct, so accessible that no one reading the book would feel intimidated, but rather excited at the world of imaginative possiblities. There is SO MUCH to savor and to keep in this slim volume, but let me just quote a little for you:

"So, you may ask, what is the use of studying the world of imagination where anything is possible and anything can be assumed, where there are no rights or wrongs and all arguments are equally good? One of the most obvious uses, I think, is its encouragement of tolerance. In the imagination our own beliefs are also only possibilities, but we can also see the possibilities in the beliefs of others Bigots and fanatics seldom have any use for the arts, because they're so preoccupied with their beliefs and actions that they can't see them as also possibilities. It's possible to go to the other extreme, to be a dilettante so bemused by possibilities that one has no convictions or power to act at all. But such people are much less common than bigots, and in our world much less dangerous."

That's wonderful, isn't it? Later he discusses the scene in "King Lear" where Gloucester's eyes are put out, using it as an example of how literature develops empathy -- "Literature keeps presenting the most vicious things to us an entertainment, but what it appeals to is not any pleasure of these things, but the exhilaration of standing apart from them and being able to see them for what they are because they aren't really happening. The more exposed we are to this, the less likely we are to find an unthinking pleasure in cruel or evil things. As the eighteenth century said in a fine mouth-filling phrase, literature refines our sensibilities."

I think I shall ask all my writing students to read this, as an introduction to Frye's work, and perhaps as a way to deepen their understanding of their own.