Briefly connecting literature, depth, education, and Steve Jobs

by Mr. Sheehy

Paul Elie, at The American Scholar, describing his first book proposal experience:

I went into his office and waited for a phone call to end. He stood. A smile, a cock of the head, a pat on the shoulder. He liked it, he said—liked it a lot. Then: “Go deeper. You need to go deeper.”

I asked him what he meant, and he explained, roundabout but in such a way as to draw clear lines between the literary text and all the other kinds of writing that washed up against the pilings of our office. What I’d written was too journalistic. It made too much of superficial connections. It was boosterish in style—it was trying to put the idea of a “school” of American Catholic writing over on us instead of trusting the material. And (again, all this was conveyed indirectly) it didn’t get to the bottom of what made these people a school, or what made them Catholic writers, or what made them Catholics at all, or why what they believed mattered to them or us.

Roger Straus liked it too—and Jonathan and FSG signed up the book. And day and night for a thousand days and nights I sought to go deeper, starting by moving my point of entry into the story back nearly half a century—to the moments where those four writers themselves turned, in their different ways, to literature and to religious belief in their own efforts to go deeper. And somewhere in the middle of those thousand days and nights, I concluded that the experience of depth—intellectual, emotional, spiritual depth—is the central literary experience. It is what makes literature literature, and what makes us read literature, and write it.

“Go deeper.” It’s not advice a writer can outgrow or set aside as unnecessary. Augustine asked, “Who understands his sins?” Likewise, what writer can truly say, “I’ve gone deep enough”?

I originally saw this quote on Wesley Hill’s tumblr, where Hill added this:

I’m reminded of the (one suspects apocryphal but wishes not) story about the Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs at Yale. Asked by a student upset over his grade on an essay how he could improve the next time around, Childs replied, “Become a deeper person.”

It strikes me that this “become deeper/go deeper” thrust is why we make students read literature in school. It’s a challenge to help students realize that their answer isn’t good enough, that they need to push themselves to see more in a text (and thus, in life). They’ll point out that their answer is right, and it’s true, it is correct. The problem is that too often it’s also shallow, obvious, and uninspiring.

I was reading Walter Jacobson’s article in The Smithsonian about Steve Jobs, and it strikes me that Jobs is a good example of how depth can work outside the world of English class. Depth doesn’t make you a good person (Jacobson says frankly Jobs was a bit of a jerk) but it does give you an understanding of people that can guide your pursuits. Jobs’s depth, gained most prominently, it appears, through his study of Buddhism, is what pushed him to understand design and its importance with computing technology–thus, the simplicity and beauty of Apple’s products.