Hamline News

Understanding Crises through Literature

Mike Reynolds has been teaching English and film at Hamline University since 2001. Outside of the classroom, he has served the university in administrative positions and on a number of committees. Currently, he is a Professor and Department Chair of English. In the spring semester he taught a first-year writing course on climate change and a literary and a cultural theory class. In the middle of teaching remotely, Reynolds was asked about the importance of literature and what might be good to read in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What can literature teach us or offer us at this time?

My research generally tends to focus on the literature and films that emerge from major historical events. My belief—what I write about, what I teach—is that literature is a way of making sense. For instance, I wrote my dissertation about how often we told and re-told the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the late 20th century, in ways that reflected but also reshaped American life. More recently I’ve looked at 9/11 literature, and visions of apocalypse in South African science fiction, and in the last couple years the growing field called climate fiction. My argument is that we tell (and constantly retell) such stories to give shape to the world we want to live in. I’m not saying we want to live in The Hunger Games. But I do think the tremendous popularity of those novels is tied to the robust ways those fantasies capture real anxieties about mass media and economic inequality, reaffirm a sense of common cause and purpose even in the midst of what feels like a competition. I think literature, even in its most escapist forms, helps us grapple with the complex, confusing world we live in.

In other words: Stories can help us re-imagine how we see ourselves in and how we might be able to transform the world.

What authors or books might be helpful as we move through this time?

Cory Doctorow’s most recent collection of science fiction stories (Radicalized) is all-around wonderful, but he has one novella that really hits home. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” an updated riff on Edgar Allan Poe, a super-rich guy builds a well-stocked, well-armed fortress to survive the end times. When a virus hits and begins to wipe out the country, he invites a few of his closest friends and they retreat to his castle. And all too quickly, they fall into disagreements, competition, destructive behaviors. It’s a familiar post-apocalyptic convention; when the going gets tough, people allegedly become vicious and selfish. However, Doctorow doesn’t see it that way, and the story takes a couple of smart, sharp twists. This anthology, and much of his work, zeroes in on how we carve a utopia out of dystopic conditions. We’re better off going to see our neighbors with “covered dishes” rather than stocking up guns.

Why do we believe that people will, when “civilization” gets stripped away, turn into monsters? The social research on behaviors during crisis suggests the opposite is true. And I’ll throw out a couple other books that tease out that argument. Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift” is scholarship — a lovely, witty, energizing version of research about the centrality of generosity in human history and across cultures. In a very different mode, Audrey Schulman’s novel Theory of Bastards examines how “natural” it is to be selfish. Her central character is an evolutionary biologist engaged in a project to understand bonobos, a species of primates whose giving, open behavior with one another belies the assumptions we have about nature “red in tooth and claw.” When the world takes a turn for the worse, the story opens up into another smart, knotty, I think ultimately hopeful take on how we treat one another (and how we treat other species and the environment, too). 


Interview via email. Lightly edited for clarity by staff.