On the other hand…

7 04 2011

Caught this much more optimistic interview in the Atlantic with Marjorie Garber, the author of The Use and Abuse of Literature:

I don’t believe there’s a necessary divide between highbrow and lowbrow or whatever. I think that the habit of reading is intensely pleasurable and it’s also hard. The pleasure of it is partly the pleasure of detection, the pleasure of recognition, the pleasure of response. I think you can probably tell from the book that I’m very optimistic actually about the future of literature and literary reading—I’m far from despairing and I don’t actually feel that there’s a crisis. What we need is to continue to show the power of reading, the pleasure of reading—and, again, more people experience that than we are sometimes aware of.

It’s nice to read something more up-beat and positive and focused on the act of reading of itself, as opposed to the publishing side of the discussion, which is sometimes so drenched with Kool-Aid on either side, one would think Congress has better chances of working together smoothly. Also, I think the last couple posts I’ve made have put me in the position of being a little snobby, but that’s not a position I really want or mean to take. I like to read for entertainment. I will buy every novel George R. R. Martin writes in the Song of Ice and Fire series without question (even though the 4th book just left me a little disappointed). I’m not saying that pleasure is all bad.

I do think, however, that truly meaningful works do more than just entertain. I think we can find those experiences in everything, but I do worry that left to just a mass-market, works with meaning and depth will be seen as “too hard” and will suffer diminished value to an even greater degree than they presently do. It’s the path of least resistance. In other news, people also don’t really go to see many independent and foreign films, they seldom go to art exhibits, and water is also wet. I find that a shame.

Garber’s focus on teaching “the power of reading” is what provides the ultimate glimmer of hope. That is, if it’s not neglected. It seems really important.




One response

10 04 2011

I agree completely about the difference in reading experiences, and it’s why I’m reluctant to judge too harshly the Oprah et al bookclub phenomena, because I think if people are encouraged to think about their reading, that’s when the differences become clear.

I often indulge in what I refer to as ‘silly’ reading – mass-market literature which is appallingly written (the last one had parts of the text in italics and boldface type, and I don’t think I’ve seen so many !!!!! since I last read the comments section on a Daily Mail article). When I read stuff like this, it’s generally to pass the time/divert my mind – in the same way as I might watch a soap opera or a trashy film I’ve seen before. The advantage that reading these kinds of books has over the TV is that I can’t do anything else at the same time (I work all the time while watching TV that I don’t really care about) – so it becomes a form of total diversion.

‘Real’ reading though is a far different experience for me. It does take work (not always hard work, but concentration), and it always stays with me longer. Whereas I couldn’t tell you much about the trashy book I just finished yesterday, I could talk for hours about the Vikram Seth novel I finished a few weeks ago, even though far less actual ‘stuff’ happened in it. I also find this is true for other people. My own personal crusade against the Da Vinci Code began when I had students talk about it being their favourite book in German orals, and then couldn’t tell me a damn thing about it, including the names of the characters.

It is for this reason that I have ‘buying’ rules for myself. Anything trashy that I know I’m only going to read once I refuse to pay full price for – it has to be on offer at the supermarket or second-hand shop, and then goes back to Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation once I’m done. For ‘real’ reading, I refuse to buy ‘on offer’ – they get bought from a bookshop, and I pay full price (thankfully, books here are exempt from VAT, so I can do this and still rebel against the govt.). I know. It’s weird.

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