One of the first important lessons you learn in a liberal arts education is to say "both/and" rather than "either/or" when it comes to questions of values.
The undergraduate's naive tendency to see the world in black and white — liberal and conservative, freedom and authority, subject and object, right and wrong — must mature into an appreciation of finer shades of gray.
"Both/and" is also the lifeblood of paradox — always a good term to throw into an essay if you're bucking for an "A" in class.
Of course, it's in the nature of paradox to turn back on itself and say, "yes/but," just when you think you've mastered "both/and."
It takes years of practice to make the switch stick.
Robert Coles has had plenty of practice. The eminent and extraordinarily prolific child psychiatrist has long taught an undergraduate course at Harvard University exploring the philosophical ramifications of literature: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?
His latest book — his 60th, by my count — is a distillation of these lessons for a wider audience. A noble undertaking, is it not?
Yes/but: When the book jacket trumpets the names of two editors directly below the author's, we need to ask whether Coles is coasting. Did he compile the book himself? Or have his students faithfully captured the heart of his lectures, as, say, Plato did with Socrates?
Maybe the answer should be both/and. But, to my ears, red flag sounds more appropriate.
Still, Coles is a smart man, brimming with insights into what makes a moral life.
For him, literature succeeds when it inspires, showing us the best of human nature, something the book's editors urge us to share in a small-group setting, joining hands and singing "Kumbaya."
No, no and no (thank you).
What Coles ostensibly wants to accomplish is commendable enough: introduce bright, young minds to the multilayered universe of literature — from the poems of William Carlos Williams to the short stories of John Cheever to the philosophical novels of Walker Percy.
Coles knows (or knew) many of the authors firsthand; he can regale his readers with tales of a writer's quirks, obsessions and pet peeves.
Such knowledge is invaluable for humanizing the humanities. But does it add to our appreciation of literature, or simply show that Coles is a champion name-dropper?
Yes and yes.
There's Raymond Carver and James Agee. There's George Orwell and Flannery O'Connor. There's Billie Holiday and Edward Hopper. Billie who?
Where does literature come into play for the crooner or the painter, I wonder. It's hard to answer that question with a both/and or even a yes/but.
Then there's Cheever.
The title of Cole's lecture on him reads, "Cheever Is Tough." How tough? We get one episode from the short story "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," followed by several pages on an unrelated newspaper article about a friendly burglar.
Just before we start scratching our heads at this crazy connection, Coles jumps in with a homily on self-righteousness.
Here, we have a case of just plain no.
Let's take another lesson from the liberal arts: You see what you look for. That applies as much to the most superficial reading of a novel as it does to the most pretentious.
Coles wants to sniff out the aroma of morality in the great books of Western civilization; he's on the prowl for the stuff of character. But is this a legitimate way to read the classics?
Maybe/but: The business of art is art — the excellence of creativity. That has to be our focus in approaching literature, not rooting out moral maxims.
In the end, literature is less about character than about possibilities of being; it's a clean, well-lighted place that lets us live lives free of the baggage of our mortality.
It's an infinite realm of spirit, incarnated as ink on paper, inviting us, at its peak, to become the word itself.
The most pressing question to arise from Coles' undergraduate course on literature, then, is this: Can we gain a depth of knowledge by skimming the surface of a subject?
No/but: Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?
"Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection" by Robert Coles (Random House, $27, 297 pages)