Friday, March 31, 2017

No Safety in Numbers

Why are there so many lists being published lately? Even respectable news publications have found it necessary to publish lists - of not just great but the "greatest" books and films, the 25 greatest British novels, the top 10 American films of the 21st century, David Lynch's films ranked from his worst to his best, etc. I have expressed my own reservations about such lists on this blog and elsewhere, but the worst I could say about them here is that they're an idiot's delight - they don't inspire critical discussion (which is, of course, the whole point). You can watch all ten of Sight and Sound's Top Ten Films of All Time without having an inkling of what makes a film great, since there is a world of difference between #1 (Vertigo) and #2 (Citizen Kane). It is the difference between the work of a clever technician and the work of a genius. And whether you agree or not that Eliot's Middlemarch is the "greatest novel written in English," it doesn't excuse you from reading Silas Marner or Daniel Derronda.

Far worse than all of the standard texts one was required to read in school are the texts one is somehow obliged to read in order to be considered "well read". There are the Desert Island lists, demanding of us a horrifically drastic elimination of everything but the absolutely essential books or music discs to have with us should we ever find ourselves shipwrecked on a desert island. (Given that a "desert" island is so-called because it has no source of fresh water, whatever books or music one brings won't matter when one is dying of thirst.) Then there are the fatalists who can always be depended on to make up lists of Things To Do Before You Die. Places to visit, food to eat, cocktails to drink. Bucket lists are everywhere.

George Orwell, who kicked his bucket at 46, once reminisced:

"When the Caliph Omar destroyed the libraries of Alexandria he is supposed to have kept the public baths warm for eighteen days with burning manuscripts, and great numbers of tragedies by Euripides and others are said to have perished, quite irrecoverably. I remember that when I read about this as a boy it simply filled me with enthusiastic approval. It was so many less words to look up in the dictionary - that was how I saw it. For, though I am only forty-one, I am old enough to have been educated at a time when Latin and Greek were only escapable with great difficulty, while 'English' was hardly regarded as a school subject at all."

Though Orwell didn't follow his classmates at Eton (like Cyril Connolly) to Cambridge or Oxford, he makes it clear that the emphasis on English texts in school curriculae is relatively new. He makes the surprising revelation that among educated British adults in the first half of the 20th century, "there must be far more who have been flogged through the entire extant works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Virgil, Horace and various other Latin and Greek authors, than have read the English masterpieces of the eighteenth century. People pay lip service to Fielding and the rest of them, of course, but they don't read them, as you can discover by making a few inquiries among your friends. How many people have ever read Tom Jones, for instance? Not so many have even read the later books of Gulliver's Travels. Robinson Crusoe has a sort of popularity in nursery versions, but the book as a whole is so little known that few people are even aware that the second part (the journey through Tartary) exists. Smollett, I imagine, is the least read of all."(2)

But readers, always eager for grist to their mills, seem to find safety in numbers. Earlier this month I read this: "Every good bibliophile lives in a hamster wheel of literary pressure: There have always been, and will always be, more great books to read than there is time to read them. Not just in the workaday sense - the job stuff, family stuff, and “ooh a new episode of The Americans” stuff that gets in the way of reading on the regular - but in an existential sense. In the sense that every passing day brings us 24 hours closer to our eventual and unavoidable death. Because who knows if there’s a Barnes & Noble in heaven?

"Over at Literary Hub, writer Emily Temple took it upon herself to quantify this ever-shortening window between the book we’re reading now and the last book we’ll read... ever. By combining data from the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator with US reading-pattern data from the Pew Research Center, Temple was able to calculate the number of books any given age group can expect to finish before shuffling off the mortal coil. She even provides calculations for each of three reading types: average US readers (12 books a year, per Pew), voracious readers (50 books a year) and super readers (80).

"The results aren’t scary per se—I’m a 31-year-old “voracious reader” and 2,800 books does sound like a lot–but they are illuminating, and worth remembering the next time you’re perusing a bookstore. Sure, War and Peace is a classic, but it may cost you five page-turners in the long run."(2)

First of all, they are talking about "readers" - people who read habitually, which is an activity in which the vast majority of people don't engage. A recent Pew study shows that only 88% of Americans under 30 read "a book" (i.e., one book) last year, while 79% of Americans over 30 read a book. The Lit Hub study defines an "average reader" as someone who reads only a book a month. But how many readers are comfortable with the picture of themselves in a hamster wheel? And what reader would sacrifice War and Peace for any number of "page-turners?" Isn't a book like War and Peace the ultimate in page-turners?

According to this statistical abstract, since I will be 59 in a few months, I should have somewhere between 288 to 1,920 books to read before I snuff it. But I should have to know which books. Are the nameless, faceless - and brainless - readers in this survey interested in the books they read having literary value? This is what really separates the sheep from the goats. 

I calculate that about 95% of my contact with great works of literature has taken place well beyond - thank god - the bare minimum academic requirements. I am thankful that I encountered (to name but a few) War and Peace (I thought it was too short, not too long), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and King Lear in a classroom. But I am happy that I was free to absorb Moby Dick, The Lily of the Valley, and The Idiot entirely at my own behest in all the years since dropping out of college. A degree would've made a lifetime's employment experience considerably rosier for me, but it wouldn't have changed the fact that, when it comes to books, I am virtually an autodidact.

But I have never been a big reader. Even now, in semi-retirement, with all the time in the world to devote to reading all of the essential literary texts that, for all manner of reasons, I haven't got to, I have to admit that I haven't read a novel in weeks, even when I have probably hundreds of them in ebook form. The last book made of paper that I looked into was, as you have already seen, the 1,369-page Everyman edition of George Orwell's Essays. I have read more poetry and short stories in the last few years than novels. The last novel I read, for something like the fourth time, was Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which is a classified as a novella.

Literature is something qualitative, not quantitative. A true bibliophile, or book lover, is like a food lover - a gastronome. He doesn't stuff himself with hotdogs and pizza all the time. He seeks out foods that heighten, not dull, his sense of taste, that maximize the pleasure of eating - not to the point of feeling full, but always leaving room for greater pleasure. In the same way, a book lover wants to read literature. He wants the quality of the writing itself to appeal to him, as a means to the attainment of beauty, that wondrous by-product of great writing.

What bestows literary value on any piece of writing? I recently came across something written by Maxim Gorky in a letter to Konstantin Fedin:

"You say you are worried by the question, 'How to write?' I have been watching for twenty-five years how this question worries people. . . . Yes, yes, this is a serious question and I was, am and shall be worried by it to the end of my days. To me this question presents itself in the form: 'How must I write to have a man, whoever he may be, emerge from the pages of a story written about him with that almost physical tangibility of his being, with that convincing, ALL BUT FANTASTIC reality, with which I see and feel him?' That is the core of the matter for me, that is the secret of the problem. . . ."

How many readers seek out serious writing about real people? The American historian Oliver Lee Bateman recently bewailed the years he wasted in his teens reading "escapist" fiction: "As a child, I devoured fantasy fiction because I believed that it could transport me to a new world. Losing one’s mind because J.K. Rowling was ignorant of the rudiments of African geopolitics gave folks something to do, but it also made me wonder what we should expect from Rowling, Martin, or anyone else earning their keep by fashioning fantastic worlds for commercial consumption... I wish that some of my previous efforts spent memorizing the niceties of these imagined pasts could now be reapplied toward more constructive ends. For history, always being seized from the past in a moment of desperation by those of us stuck in the present, edifies even as it terrifies. Unlike these make-believe lands where nothing really happens and all the best rulers end up benevolent dictators, our world’s vast gap between the then and the now should remind us that, much as things weren’t always like they are now, they needn’t remain that way in the future, either."(3)

"We read to know we're not alone." So says Jack Lewis, aka C. S. Lewis in the dramatization of an episode in his life by William Nicholson called Shadowlands. As with everything else, before you start reading a book, you must first identify your reason for doing so. What is it you hope to get out of it? A few precious hours of self-forgetting? What is the object of reading books? Is there a goal? If I had to give an answer to the question it probably wouldn't make much sense to most of the people who read. I want to learn something that I didn't know before - about myself, other people, life in the world.

The critic John Simon once likened reading to radar. Determining the range and course of an object merely from one's own perspective has enormous shortcomings. But if you can triangulate your perspective on an object with another person's perspective, you get a much better view of it - a three-dimensional view - that gives you a better understanding of its real shape and distance, it's true bearing on your life. Reading offers us a release from our solitude, a transcendence of the self into something greater and higher than our hopelessly limited lives. And if our guide is Tolstoy or Shakespeare, even the worst that they reveal to us, the very worst that time can do to us becomes bearable. Literature, like all great art, redeems us from experience.


(1) George Orwell, "As I Please," Tribune, 7 July 1944.
(2) Kira Bindrim, "The Big Sleep: The number of books you’ll read before you die, charted," Quartz, March 22, 2017.
(3) Oliver Lee Bateman, "Chasing the (Literal) Dragon," The Paris Review, January 10, 2017

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