Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Beware the Author Who Knows


That’s the best word for it. And for my reaction to it.

It is Marua Kelly’s call in The Atlantic for what she calls a slow-book movement, in which she urges everyone to turn off the boob tube and read thirty minutes a day. But not just any reading – she wants us to read the classics.

Fair enough. I’ve read two books – what she probably would call literary – so far this year; Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and HG Wells’ The World Set Free. That’s where my smug comes in.

But reading only the classics – and anything classified as “literary,” whatever that means – is a route to smugness, and not much else. Oh, there’s the satisfaction of completing something, as Kelly writes about:
Best of all, perhaps, serious reading will make you feel good about yourself. Surveys show that TV viewing makes people unhappy and remorseful—but when has anyone ever felt anything but satisfied after finishing a classic? Or anything but intellectually stimulated after tearing through a work of modern lit like, say, Mary Gaitskill's Veronica?
And there is the intellectual stimulation, the navel contemplation and everything else we’re supposed to get out of reading “the classics” and something that smacks of “literary.” Re-reading, for example, Swift’s Gullivers Travels this time around made me appreciate how sterile is the land of the Houhynms, where reason is king and emotion is tossed out the window. Lemuel Gulliver’s interactions with these wonderful, intelligent horses so crippled his relationship with humanity that when he got home it took him years to reconcile himself to the fact that he was married to a filthy Yahoo, had had sexual intercourse with a filthy Yahoo and was forced to interact with filthy Yahoos for the rest of his life, when he couldn’t be out in the barn, brooding over his barely-communicative horses, mere shadows of the Houhynms of yore.

So I like me a few classics. But what Kelly needs to be aware of in her manifesto is that with her broad strokes of pushing what is “classical” and what is “literary,” she’s left a lot of room open for interpretation. Max Hastings’ war chronicles, Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories, Richard Rhodes’ tales of the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, are all classic and literary in my mind. But are they “non-literary” as Kelly wants? I don’t know.

And you know what, I’m reading a non-literary book right now that’s opening my eyes and helping me to understand people and to gain more empathy towards them. Should I chuck it in favor of something else? I don’t think so.

And frankly, I shouldn’t even be reading Kelly’s manifesto because it’s non-literary, as she points out:
But Slow Books will have standards about what kinds of reading materials count towards your daily quota. Blog posts won't, of course, but neither will newspaper pieces or even magazine articles.
Here’s what she emphasizes in her manifesto:

By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details.
Hell, I can think of a lot of non-literary writings that fit this bill.

So I will read the classics. I will also read the cheap pulp she probably doesn’t want me to read. Because when I read a book – and re-read, and read again – it’s to pick up on the language, the structure, the images, the cognitive challenge, the ability to see the world in a different way and to interpret unusual description, and to push my memories to link what I have read in the long form with current events which I may read about in the short form, thus increasing my depth of understanding of how the then intersects with the now, rather than waiting for the now to become the then, only in longer form.

What good does it do me to read, for example, Ted White’s classic – in my mind – The Making of the President 1968 if I can’t look at current news, read current articles and blog posts, and create those connections from that hurly-burly world of politics when our nation was in turmoil socially and politically? Not much. But creating those connections helps me connect to the world of today, and I can only do that if I’m actively reading all sorts of stuff that comes my way. I’m better off reading current events for fifteen minutes, then refreshing those connections by reading the classics – Wells’ The World Set Free also comes to mind in today’s world – than I am shutting out the world of today completely for the sake of literary reading of the classic form of whatever.

I’ll continue my eclectic reading, thank you very much.

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