There are few television series more consciously literate than Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone (1959–1964). Serling earned a BA in Literature following his World War II service, and his love of books—whether through story patterns, allusions, or direct references—is evident in every product he created or supervised. But The Twilight Zone was uniquely situated among his corpus. Serling, the literature guy, wrote a substantial percentage of the scripts himself, but the show’s other major writers—Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson—also had significant reputations as authors. Appropriately, the Writers Guild of America in 2016 ranked The Twilight Zone as the third best written TV series of all time, arguing that it “anticipated the hit writer-driven TV dramas of today.”
. . . the Bible and the many classics of human civilization have within them the potential to become kinetic, to catalyze virtue in those willing to read them the right way and be shaped by them.It should come as no surprise, therefore, that episodes of Serling’s brainchild often not only alluded to literature but also commented on how we read. Indeed, some of the best-regarded episodes of the show self-consciously draw attention to the ways in which its characters approach books. Two of the most famous such contributions are “Time Enough at Last” and “The Obsolete Man.” The episodes have significant commonalities: both were written by Serling, both are science fiction pieces that occur in ominous futures, and both star renowned character actor Burgess Meredith in the lead roles. But while each of these episodes draws attention to its protagonist’s reading habits, the contrast between the characters’ respective approaches to reading could not be greater. In examining this contrast, we can better understand Serling’s wisdom in pointing us toward reading not just as a recreational pastime but as a possible site for the cultivation of virtue.
In her 2018 book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Karen Swallow Prior argues that reading literature can be a means by which we can begin the process of cultivating virtue. Most of her chapters pair up specific virtues with particular texts that embody those virtues, but in her introduction, she sets out the rationale for her project. She contends that reading for pleasure is significant, but that to enjoy a literary text, we must come to it ready to read slowly and grapple with its lessons. Such books don’t so much give us obvious answers as train our minds in how to think.
But reading a book is more than just an intellectual exercise. As Prior notes, the books must be experienced in their native forms and their very words to be effective; plot summaries by themselves will not do (not even the ones she provides). In this sense, reading mirrors virtue formation—it must be experienced and practiced as well as cognitively understood.
Prior is careful to insist that reading books is not the only path to virtue, nor does reading automatically lead one on the path to virtue. And virtue itself in our secular age is a fraught proposition, since we have removed many of the theological foundations upon which it was built. But because human beings naturally resonate with narratives and stories, reading remains one significant way to rekindle some innate sense of virtue (or at the very least a greater recognition of its absence). In setting out these propositions, Prior invokes a wide array of thinkers, such as Aristotle, Philips Sidney, John Milton, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and James K. A. Smith. She then introduces the virtues on which she will be focusing, drawn from three longstanding categories: the cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, courage), the theological virtues (faith, hope, love), and the heavenly virtues (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility), each one represented by a single text. Through example, she hopes to walk alongside her readers to show them how great books may instill virtue in their readers.
The first-season Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last” could serve as a case study for how not to learn virtue from books. Arguably one of the most iconic entries in the entire series, “Time Enough at Last” follows the character of Henry Bemis, a mild-mannered and distractible bank clerk who wants nothing more than to find the time to read great books. His efforts seem doomed to be constantly thwarted, first by his boss, who cares only for the bottom line, then by his wife, Helen, who resents her husband’s unsociability and lack of initiative. Bemis’s employer forbids him from reading on the job, while Helen maliciously defaces his books. One day, while Bemis is reading alone in the bank vault, a bomb destroys the entire city, and he emerges to a desolate and unpeopled wasteland. After a period of initial despair, Bemis elatedly realizes that he has “time enough at last” to read all the books he has ever wanted to read. He raids the local library and begins stacking up piles of books… only to drop his glasses by mistake, cracking the lenses and consigning him to a future of near blindness.
For many viewers, our first reaction to Henry Bemis’s plight is likely pity, perhaps even anger. Literate fans of The Twilight Zone may feel extensive sympathy for him—what serious reader, after all, has not longed for more time to dive into a text or celebrated when a window of opportunity opened to do such reading? When Bemis mutters to himself at the end, “It’s not fair,” we may be inclined to agree with him.
And that impulse, of course, isn’t entirely wrong. “Time Enough at Last” is, on one level, a searing critique of mid-century American pragmatism. In its half-hour format, it works primarily in caricatures with Bemis’s employer and his wife, but they are striking caricatures only one step removed from the philistine rejection of fine art that appalled Serling. Moreover, as representatives of “American” values in the Cold War era, they are implicitly implicated in the very modern tensions that lead to the deployment of the bomb that decimates the town. Only Henry Bemis the reader escapes this fate.
Yet Bemis, in the end, is no true hero. The word virtue derives in part from the word for strength, yet Bemis is in no ways a strong individual. He is, of course, physically weak; Burgess Meredith cowers in every frame beside his fellow actors, and the failure of his character’s eyes makes up the central conceit of the episode.
But he lacks strength of character as well. Bemis doesn’t read for the sake of growing in virtue—he reads to escape his life. He isn’t a bad man, but neither is he a good man—I don’t know that any one of the virtues Prior identifies could justly be applied to him. He hides from his boss to read on his lunch break and tries (unsuccessfully) to squirrel his books away from his domineering spouse. While he objects to their disdain for literature, his defenses focus on the texts’ aesthetic qualities. This is in some senses appropriate—beauty is a vital aspect of literature—but the absence of any aspect of moral goodness in his apologia is nonetheless conspicuous. When the bomb falls and he realizes he is alone, he very naturally experiences despair. It is the library that gives him joy, joy that there is “time enough at last” to do his reading. Yet even if he hadn’t broken his glasses, his reading would necessarily be hollow; it would be reading in isolation, apart from community.
In “The Obsolete Man,” however, Serling gives us an alternative, a man who has grown in virtue because of his reading. In this episode, Burgess Meredith plays Romney Wordsworth, who is summoned to an inquisition by a future totalitarian government. He is accused of holding the “obsolete” profession of “librarian,” a charge he does not seek to refute. This charge is punishable by death, as is the other charge of which he stands condemned: believing in God. Permitted to choose his means of execution, Wordsworth arranges to have it televised in his study. The Chancellor arrives an hour before the fateful moment, only to find he has been locked in the study with Wordsworth, who has set a bomb there as the mode of his execution. As Wordsworth tranquilly reads his forbidden books (including the Bible), the Chancellor grows increasingly frantic. Wordsworth lets him out just before the bomb destroys the room and its occupant. But upon returning to his chamber, the erstwhile “executioner” finds that his fellow servants of the State have turned on him for betraying such weakness, and the episode’s conclusion implies that he too will soon be sacrificed to secular government order.
In Henry Bemis, Meredith portrayed a reader whose reading has formed in him no virtue. In Romney Wordsworth, Meredith is almost as mild-mannered in his demeanor, yet he depicts a person who is incalculably better, and better specifically because of his books. In her chapter on courage, Prior observes that “[m]oral strength is one kind of courage. Perhaps it’s the foundation of all courage.” She writes this about Huck Finn, an individual who, like Wordsworth, lacks the superficial qualities we might associate with courage. Neither is powerful or obviously daring. Both are set against oppressive systems. As the Chancellor first declares the death sentence, Meredith shows us Wordsworth’s fear and dismay.
Yet his ability to overcome this fear is what demonstrates his moral strength, and that strength exists because he has filled his heart with the goodness, truth, and beauty of great literature—including (but not limited to) the Bible. When the Chancellor haughtily asserts that the State has proved that God doesn’t exist, Wordsworth ferociously snaps back, “You cannot erase God with an edict!” Given the time to compose himself, mild-mannered Romney Wordsworth faces his death with none of the cowering imbecility of Henry Bemis but with dignity, even joy. He quietly reads from the Psalms as the clock winds its way down toward his execution.
His executioner, on the other hand, has no such grounding in virtue, and thus grows increasingly terrified as the prospect of his demise becomes more likely. Prior observes that the virtue of courage is “the habit that enables a person to face difficulties well.” “How does a man react to the knowledge that he’s going to be blown to bits in a half an hour?” asks Wordsworth of the State cameras.
Answer: That depends on the individual. So for myself, I’m going to sit down and read my Bible that’s been hidden here for over twenty years. It’s a crime punishable by death; but still it’s the only possession that I have that has any value at all to me. So I’m going to just sit down and read it until the moment of my death. How will you spend your last moments, Chancellor?
While Wordsworth’s reading has prepared him to do so, and he can truly say, “I will fear no evil,” his antagonist has never had to face difficulties because he has always done the bidding of the seemingly all-powerful State. Stripped of those assurances, with no grounding in virtuous character (from literature or anywhere else), he cracks beneath the strain—and loses the life whose preservation, we now see, was his only end.
“Time Enough at Last” and “The Obsolete Man” differ in certain respects. The former resembles more obviously our own world, and in it, the books survive while the people who reject them do not. The latter dramatizes a future more starkly dissimilar to our own, one in which the books are destroyed by those who have rejected them.
Yet both episodes share certain key features. They are science-fictional works drawn from Serling’s observation that modern society was increasingly turning away from the wisdom of literature toward an ethos of ruthlessly pragmatic self-interest. It is people like Bemis’s boss and his spouse who create the foundation for governments like the State of “The Obsolete Man.” “This is not a new world,” Serling declares in the opening. “It is simply an extension of what began in the old one.”
But “The Obsolete Man,” despite its grim message, ends on a note of hope. In his closing narration—which he atypically appeared on-screen for—Serling maintains, “The Chancellor, the late Chancellor, was only partly correct. He was obsolete. But so is the State, the entity he worshiped. Any state, any entity, any ideology which fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man…… that state is obsolete.”
By asserting that such a state is in fact the obsolete entity, Serling suggests that somehow Wordsworth’s rebellion lives on. Because his execution was televised, his courage in the face of death, juxtaposed against the cowardice of the State’s ostensible leader, was manifested across the nation. He and his books may not have survived, but the effects of his virtue will.
It would be convenient for literature teachers like Prior and me if we could make the claim that reading great books automatically makes us great people. Then we would have some nice evidence-based analytics to justify our discipline to a sometimes skeptical world. Alas, however, this is not necessarily the case; many great readers are terrible people. Yet the Bible and the many classics of human civilization have within them the potential to become kinetic, to catalyze virtue in those willing to read them the right way and be shaped by them. Rod Serling knew this, and he used his own medium of television to communicate this truth…… in The Twilight Zone.