Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination is about literature—why we write it, why we read it, why we bother at all—but it’s also about who we vote for and what we buy; it’s about civilization and creating a better world.
The book is the printed version of Frye’s 1962 CBC Massey Lectures. It’s 68 pages crammed full of ideas that still feel fresh after 51 years.
Frye was already a celebrity professor before The Educated Imagination. He made his name interpreting William Blake’s poetry with 1947’s Fearful Symmetry and then transforming the world of literary criticism with 1957’s Anatomy of Criticism.
Unlike some University of Toronto celebrity profs who preceded him (including Harold Innis and Donald Creighton), Frye can write, and, also unlike the others, he’s funny:
“A person who knows nothing about literature may be an ignoramus,” he writes, “but many people don’t mind being that.”
Frye’s goal—to answer the most basic questions about literature—requires a long set-up, but the preamble isn’t at all boring, and, even if it were, it would be worth it. After 40 pages of heavy thinking, this is what Frye comes up with:
“Literature, then, is not a dream-world: it’s two dreams, a wish-fulfillment dream and an anxiety dream, that are focused together, like a pair of glasses, and become a fully conscious vision.”
Later on the same page, he adds, “Literature is a human apocalypse, man’s revelation to man, and criticism is not a body of adjudications, but the awareness of that revelation, the last judgment of mankind.”
He goes on. The study of literature encourages tolerance, which is the result of our realization that our beliefs are only possibilities and we can “see the possibilities in the beliefs of others.” And that leads to free speech and the resistance of mob rule.
“There’s something in all of us that wants to drive toward a mob, where we can all say the same thing without having to think about it, because everybody is all alike except people that we can hate or persecute. Every time we use words, we’re either fighting against this tendency or giving into it. When we fight against it, we’re taking the side of genuine and permanent human civilization.”
There’s no doubt Frye takes literature and life seriously: The Educated Imagination reminds us that what we do matters. It matters that we read and that we think. And, most importantly, with this book, Frye shows us that imagination is not simply a childhood toy, but our most important and powerful tool as a species.
“The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life,” he writes, “is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”
This book will make you want to be smarter, and want to do the work to become so. It is easy to read, fun to read, and important. Go read it.