Reading is something I spend an awful lot of time doing. Why? What’s the point? As a Ferengi would say, “what is its value?” I’ve been attempting to formulate my thoughts on what it is that I think I get out of the books I read, now that I can no longer justify reading by reference to any potential professional concerns, as I could while a grad student. This first short episode is almost entirely negative and hostile. Sorry for that, but hey, that’s me for ya’.
When someone tells you they read a lot of books, they usually think they are bragging. It’s an announcement of one’s refined intellect and disdain for the masses, one which you almost always find paired with denigration of tv, which I call “televion” because tv is a nickname and nicknames are for friends and television is NO FRIEND OF MINE. (That’s from a Mr. Show sketch — did you catch that? If so, then you obviously watch television and are therefore a subhuman mediocrity, sorry.) Cf., this thread at Conversational Reading where both Scott E. and the mysterious M preface their enthusiasm for Lost, (a televised entertainment program which happens to be quite shitty), with exculpatory expressions of generalized hostility toward television.
Obviously this has a lot to do with social class, and people who self-apply the title “book lover”(/”television hater”) are often singling themselves out as the sacred vessels by which real cultural value, (as opposed to disposable cultural detritus), is transmitted. Plebs watch television, the cultured elite read books. This attitude is mostly unjustified, and it irritates me on a number of levels, almost all of which are illustrated in this review of Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.
English majors of all types will also enjoy the parlor game of totaling up the titles they have already consumed. (I made it to 45 but only by cheating a little: I’m pretty sure I never actually got more than halfway through The Red and the Black and while I have read three P.G. Wodehouse novels I’m not at all sure they were the ones she listed.)
This paragraph typifies all that is bad and wrong with book culture. Let me count the ways:
Score-keeping. This drives me nuts. Don’t get me wrong, I do it myself whenever I read books about books; I loved Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead, partly because she wrote so enthusiastically about Elias Canetti’s Auto-Da-Fe, which I had read just prior, (and which, incidentally, contains the origin of the title of this blog.) When I feel a strong connection to a work of art or literature or film or whatever, there’s nothing I enjoy more that for brilliant people to discuss why they also felt strongly about it. You see, if I’m engaged by the same books as people who are professional book-lovers of great renown, then my tastes are validated and I feel like I’m not the only one who thinks about life and art in a certain way. It’s a good feeling, but it’s a sort of masturbatory self-congratulation that should really be kept private.
The most embarassing part about the reviewer’s score-keeping is that she cheats. She didn’t read The Red and the Black, but counted it anyway. This is disgraceful not only because she felt the need to inflate her own grade (“I’m giving myself an A+ in reading!”), but also because The Red and the Black is among the finest novels I’ve ever read.
This brings us to the second major irritant in that review: Undergraduate Nostalgia. Did you notice the reference to “English majors”? Well, she doesn’t mean people who actually majored in English. It’s meant as shorthand for a certain type of person:
Non-English majors read to inform themselves. But English majors read because they like to.
However, as I was reading (and enjoying) Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, it occurred to me that there is a sizable third group that ought to be recognized as well. These could be called the über-English majors: people who, long after school is done, continue to read exactly the same kinds of books required in lit courses. They are often also book club-participants. For them, hurling themselves into weighty books is a pleasure that is most delightful when shared by others.
This attitude is so completely opposed to my own personality and tastes that my head spun around like Pazuzu after reading that paragraph. I am not, nor have I ever been, an English major, and frankly I resent the implication. (I don’t really mind the appellation “uber-English major” though, because it implies that I am superior to English majors, which happens to be true ^_____^.) Also, I would sooner hurl myself down a concrete flight of stairs than join a book club.
Going back to the first quoted paragraph, the reviewer refers to the act of reading a book as “consuming” it. Connect this choice of words, (which in poker is called a “tell”), to her professed desire to read books in public and the result is: Conspicuous Consumption. This sums up everything that I despise about the contemporary cult of the novel.
In The Books In My Life, Henry Miller expresses a sentiment which I’m inclined to agree with, (I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have the book in front of me): One should strive to read as few books as possible. Reading is just another form of passivity and inaction; as the Brian Jonestown Massacre song says: Thought – Action = Shit. Unless your professional concerns oblige you otherwise, read only those few masterpieces that speak to you utterly, which give insight into the hidden depths of one’s character and provoke an almost religious experience. Anything less and you’d be better off building some shelves or cleaning out the refrigerator. A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but good advice nonetheless. Most importantly, unless you happen to be Susan Sontag or Henry Miller or some sharp mind who has spent time thinking very seriously about such things, keep it under your hat.
Joining a book club, (or writing a blog! touché!), is the mediocre mind’s way of circumventing the essential loneliness and inactivity of reading. By sharing one’s opinions with others, reading becomes reified as social activity, but a feeble and debased activity. Nothing new is created, no value beyond social gratification and mutual congratulation. This is reading not for it’s own sake, but as a lifestyle accessory stemming from the desire to be known as the sort of person who reads serious books.