Nov 25 2017

The Trouble with Reading Too Many Good Books

bookshelf

The Trouble with Reading Too Many Good Books

Twenty-four years ago, Harold Bloom said we should read only canonical works, only the best of the best:

Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read….

Reviewing bad books, W. H. Auden once remarked, is bad for the character. Like all gifted moralists, Auden idealized despite himself, and he should have survived into the present age, wherein the new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for the character, which I think is probably true. Reading the very best writers–let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy–is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere….

Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.

We possess the Canon because we are mortal and also rather belated. There is only so much time, and time must have a stop, while there is more to read than there ever was before…. One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify….

Yet we must choose: As there is only so much time, do we reread Elizabeth Bishop or Adrienne Rich? Do I again go in search of lost time with Marcel Proust, or am I to attempt yet another rereading of Alice Walker’s stirring denunciation of all males, black and white? ….

If we were literally immortal, or even if our span were doubled to seven score of years, says, we could give up all argument about canons. But we have an interval only, and then our place knows us no more, and stuffing that interval with bad writing, in the name of whatever social justice, does not seem to me to be the responsibility of the literary critic…. [1]

More recently, Alan Jacobs has suggested we should place some limits even on canonical works:

While I agree with Harold Bloom about many things and am thankful for his long advocacy for the greatest of stories and poems, in these matters I am firmly on the side of Lewis and Chesterton. Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit”––for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday. [2]

Excess is toxic. Too much of anything is biologically poisonous. One might compare the worldview of the steady reader to the worldview of the career soldier. Take General John J. Pershing (1860-1948) for example:

He liked life at McKinley. With a good Officers’ Club and a large contingent of officers, it furnished a social world all its own. Pershing made it a point, however, to avoid concentrating on Army friendships. “We Army people tend to stick together too much and become clannish,” he said. “It’s good to know civilians. It helps them appreciate what the Army is like and it’s good for us to know what they’re like.” [3]

It was Pershing’s ability to get outside his own habitual worldview as a career soldier and actively intermingle with civilian life and culture that led him to further successes. At one point, when he was stationed in the Philippines:

Pershing was thunderstruck. To his knowledge, this was unprecedented. He had never heard of a white man being so honored by Moros [as Pershing had]. Solemnly he thanked Sajiduciman. In a concluding ceremony, both men placed their hands on the Koran and swore allegiance to the United States. [4]

NOTES

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[1] Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages, (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1994) 15–16, 30–32.

[2] Jacobs, Alan, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2011) 23.

[3] Smythe, Donald, Guerrilla Warrior: the Early Life of John J. Pershing, (New York, NY: Scribner’s Sons, 1973) 135.

[4] Smythe, Guerrilla Warrior: the Early Life of John J. Pershing 92.


May 2 2016

MISREADING & MISTRANSLATING: Between Boredom & Bombast

bookbread Canterbury

The books which once we valued more than the apple of the eye, we have quite exhausted. What is that but saying, that we have come up with the point of view which the universal mind took through the eyes of one scribe; we have been that man, and have passed on.

––Emerson[1]

Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are as old as Adam.

––Thoreau[2]

A philistine is habitually bored and looks for things that won’t bore him. An artist finds things boring, but is never bored.

––Kraus[3]

“You don’t impress me at all,” she said, “Everything you say is boring and incomprehensible, but that alone doesn’t make it true. What I really think, sir––why do you always call me dear Fräulein?––is that you can’t be bothered with the truth simply because it’s too tiring.”

––Kafka[4]

Reading Theory I: Somewhere in After Babel (1975) George Steiner writes that there is no such thing as proper translation—there are only mistranslations (some better than others), and that creative mistranslation is the job of the interpretant.

Reading Practice I: A few weeks ago in Al Cantion, a seafood restaurant in Comacchio, northeast Italy––with the icon of Sophia Loren centered high on one of the walls, beaming, bearing down on all the restaurant’s patrons––I, Bookbread, and my company Cosimo and Chiara and Scott were eating some delicious seafood when someone at our table mentioned the name Alessandro Manzoni in passing.

Because Bookbread cannot tell a lie under Sophia’s watchful eye, I confessed to my company that I Promessi sposi (Betrothed) (1827) was, for me, a boring read, hadn’t been that bored reading since a tenth grade assignment covering Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (1836).

But Italian natives Cosimo and Chiara (both university educated, the former from the rustic south, the latter from urban Rome) thought Manzoni boring also, and couldn’t understand why he continues to be so revered by educators of Italian Literature, when even the Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel (2003) informs us:

I promessi sposi was a required text in schools. Up to a generation or so ago, it was not unusual to find Italians able to recite from memory long passages from the most famous pages of the novel.[5]

Bookbread remembered to thank Sophia how Manzoni could, occasionally, offer moments of slight self-depreciation in a tongue-in-cheek style:

The reader should know that among the common people in Milan, and even more in the country, the word ‘poet’ does not mean what it means among all respectable folk—a sacred genius, an inhabitant of Pindus, a votary of the Muses: it means a peculiar person who’s a bit crazy, and talks and behaves with more wit and oddity than sense. What an impertinent habit this is of the common people’s manhandling words and making them say things so very far from their legitimate meaning! For what, I ask you, has writing poetry got to do with being a bit crazy?[6]

Reading Theory II: Somewhere in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) Harold Bloom writes that there is no such thing as properly reading a poem––there are only misreadings (some better than others), and that creative misreading is the job of the literary critic.

Reading Practice II: A week after Comacchio, in the shadow of the Texas Capitol, a fellow writer and brother-in-law of Bookbread’s called Brick Made, invited me to the Chili Parlor because he was curious about Bookbread’s recent trip to Italia.

Memories of Bookbread’s visit through Emilia-Romagna were soon imparted to Brick Made. Later in the conversation I mentioned, without hesitation or criticism, that Bookbread didn’t understand Brick Made’s latest published short story about baseball. Ten years ago, when face to face with a writer, Bookbread would have told that person, “I liked it” whatever it was I just read of theirs, whether I truly did or not. Now too much truth spills out, and I think I’ve made a mess at the chili parlor.

“Oh, there’s nothing to get,” says Brick Made. “It was literary clickbait, an exercise in the gonzo-esque, trolling for what counts as trendy.”

“Well, trolling can be good. The random can be good. The story was really random. Bateson says somewhere that ‘without the random, there can be no new thing.’ ”[7]

“Yea, I carpet-bombed them with Dadaism. I wrote it to purposely make no sense—as randomly as possible––that’s what the mag wanted.”

“Benevolent blitzkrieg. But we’re in election season, so perhaps it’s appropriate.”

“Egg and face and all that. But they paid me. And published me. So I’m happy. Joke’s on them.”

(Another example of trolling the trendy: Edward Snowden/Scissorhands on CNN )

NOTES

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[1] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar: Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 31, 1837.”

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Economy.”

[3] Kraus, Karl. Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms. Edited and Translated by Harry Zohn. Engendra Press: Montreal. Reprint Chicago UP. 1976. p. 52.

[4] Kafka, Franz. “Beschreibung Eines Kampfes.” (“Description of a Struggle.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. p. 37.

[5] Ragusa, Olga. “Alessandro Manzoni and developments in the historical novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel. Eds. Peter Bondanella and Andrea Ciccarelli. Cambridge UP. 2003. p. 43.

[6] Manzoni, Alessandro. I Promessi Sposi. (Betrothed.) 1840. Translated by Fr Kenelm Foster. 1964. Edited by David Forgacs and Matthew Reynolds. London, UK: J. M. Dent. 1997. XIV, pp. 204–05.

[7] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. p. 147.

 


Mar 25 2011

Second of Three Proposals: Toward a Frankenstein-like Poetics

Continued from First of Three Proposals: Toward a Poetics of Ignorance

See also Third of Three Proposals: Toward Reconciling a Poetics of Ignorance with a Frankenstein-like Poetics

1.0 All books of power are made from prior books of power. A few of these books are elaborate tapestries, however, most are patchwork quilts. All books are literally scrapbooks: books made from the scraps of other books.[1]

1.1 These scraps, or parts of prior books, are also the prior parts of dead peoples’ thoughts, ideas, and memories—so these book-parts are no different than the lifeless limbs of dead men and women.

1.2 A writer reassembles, reanimates the dead parts of people to make a book, therefore: any book of power is a “Frankenstein” monster, a kind of zombie text.

2.0 The doubts expressed by a writer stimulate, reanimate the parts, and quicken the book to breathe before the reader.[2]

3.0 A library is a cemetery[3]––the writer is a ghoul, a grave robber, hence the truism: “All writers steal.”


[1] Heed the words of Harold Bloom:

“Each poem is an evasion not only of another poem, but also of itself, which is to say that every poem is a misinterpretation of what it might have been.” (Anxiety of Influence. 1975. Oxford UP. p. 120.)

Bloom bestows a schematic, but Robert Graves gives writers a method:

The method may be called “analeptic mimesis”: one slowly copies out the poem by hand, as if it were a first draft of one’s own. When the pen checks at a word or a phrase, one becomes intuitively aware of laziness, doubt, stupidity, or some compromise with moral principle.

(Oxford Lectures on Poetry. 1962. Cassell. p. 4.)

 [2] As De Quincy puts it:

Now, if it be asked what is meant by communicating power, I, in my turn, would ask by what name a man would designate the case in which I should be made to feel vividly, and with a vital consciousness, emotions which ordinary life rarely or never supplies occasions for exciting, and which had previously lain unwakened, and hardly within the dawn of consciousness— as myriads of modes of feeling are at this moment in every human mind for want of a poet to organize them. I say, when these inert and sleeping forms are organized, when these possibilities are actualized, is this conscious and living possession of mine power, or what is it?

 [3] See Jonathan Swift, Battle of the Books (1704), Samuel Johnson Rambler 02 (1750).


Oct 11 2010

What drew me to Harold Bloom

I never knew until now just what it was that drew me towards Bloom. But after reading his 1991 interview with the Paris Review I think I know why:

INTERVIEWER

Are there [literary, fictional] characters you would like to have known?

BLOOM

No, no. The only person I would like to have known, whom I have never known, but it’s just as well, is Sophia Loren. I have been in love with Sophia Loren for at least a third of a century. But undoubtedly it would be better never to meet her. I’m not sure I ever shall, though my late friend Bart Giamatti had breakfast with her. Judging by photographs and recent film appearances, she has held up quite well, though a little too slender now—no longer the same gorgeous Neapolitan beauty, now a much more sleek beauty.


Jan 24 2010

The Stagnation of American Book Reviewers, Critics, and Short Fiction Outlets

Mark Athitakis at American Fiction writes:

Because a critic voicing “personal opinion” isn’t really the problem; the problem is the decreasing ability for readers to know, over time, that the critic is a person with a few habits and peculiar tastes, somebody you know well enough to care about disagreeing with.

Athitakis seems to suggest (by Bookbreads reading at least) that readers are responsible for their knowledge of critics as people, even though it is getting harder to do so nowadays. But by this logic, apparently the critic never need know of the reader. Readers subsequently face an ever-increasing “knowledge gap” concerning critics.

The Solution:  Readers must fortify their wits with additional biographical data of the critic in question in order to understand that critic in order to understand the writer/text the critic is discussing.

There seems to be an unstated assumption that critics are writing for a single readership.  But who are those readers? People possibly interested in books? (In that case we should call them pre-readers.) Is the critic’s readership other experts in criticism? Is the critic’s readership book readers? Then how much recommending is needed?

Can it not be possible that one reason newspapers and magazines are cutting their book sections is that those particular sections are no longer profitable? And are they not profitable because an ever-decreasing readership is interested in the specific information the book sections and their critic-reviewers have to offer? Athitakis certainly highlights how mere reviewing has evolved online into a shopping decision involving “Consumer Reports” kinds of data—and it is evident that even before the internet, customers wanted to hear what other customers had to say about the products they shared an interest in. Currently the analysis, teaching, and educating of others about books are products that book critics can still offer readers without stretching a simple “thumbs up or down” on a book into five paragraphs.

Bookbread has never come across a critic as somebody you know well enough. I may feel that Harold Bloom is one of the most influential teachers in my life, but I have never met him, and I don’t feel that I “know” him. Athitakis, (or my reading of him) seems to be confusing knowing a person with knowing their writing—as with primary sources so with secondary.

Bookbread is interested in the critic’s critical texts, not critical moments of the critic’s biography.  There is no gnosis needed for the reader when it comes to critics.  Or to reverse the argument:  Just because I empathize with someone’s life story doesn’t mean I sympathize with their writing.

Athitakis links to John Fox, who comments that for critics:

They have an inverse relationship, it seems—as word-of-mouth finds more avenues of dissemination, book reviews tank in relevance and power.

“Power”?  Where are the all-powerful book reviews?  Where is the definitive THIS BOOK REVIEW CHANGED LITERATURE AS WE KNOW IT among American critics? (Henry James and T.S. Eliot were too ashamed of their roots to be called “American” critics.)

Fox continues:

I do know that book reviews should have more importance than merely telling me whether or not I should read a book. They also perform the critical role of judging books. But to survive in this new media landscape, book reviews need to do what only they can do: describe the book well, connect the book to current books, the canon, trends, and make insightful interpretations that many readers might have otherwise have missed.

The issue seems to be the role critics play in their interactions with readers.  An example of the current role of the critic might be to comment on what writers are not writing about rather than vise versa, as a recent example from Ted Genoways at Mother Jones shows:

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq.

Genoways concludes with some tart words for today’s American fiction writers, words much inline with the call for abusive criticism, and equally applicable to our country’s book critics:

I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.

[NYRNicholson Baker, Brian Turner]


Jan 18 2010

Mere List Making

At American Fiction Notes, Mark Athitakis lists five reasons for not posting lists of “best books of the year” or any other such lists on his book blog. Bookbread fully supports Athitakis’s proactive approach towards list containment in the book blogosphere even if he has to create lists to do it.

Athitakis also includes some ideas of list making as a potential kind of art form and even spirituality:

Lists contribute to a culture of filthy linkbait whoring that just plays into Arianna Huffington’s greedy goddamn hands. Every person who gets access to a Web site’s stats knows that lists bring in traffic. This is naturally seductive, but ultimately contributes to an online hivemind of short attention spans, which is death on sustained commentary.

All of which is to say that I was a tad cranky.

I might’ve calmed down a little had I read Albert Mobilio’s consideration of Umberto Eco’s book The Infinity of Lists before the holidays. Lists can, he argues, have a kind of art to them, if approached in the right way.

A list is an intimation of totality, a simulacrum of knowing much, of knowing the right much. We select our ten best big-band recordings, all-time basketball starting fives, mysteries to read this summer; add up the people we’ve slept with or people we wish we had; index our movie-memorabilia collection; count our blessings; list reasons for not getting out of bed. We jot these accounts on envelopes, store them on hard drives, murmur them under our breath as we ride home from work—it’s no accident that many prayers are really nothing more than lists.

Bookbread can’t vouch for lists existing as types of art forms — though the listing of statements in Wittgenstein is rather elegant — but when it comes to mental nutrition, there is no doubt that certain lists (in the form of that dreaded c-word “canon”) carry a practicality that cannot be denied. As Harold Bloom observes in The Western Canon (1995), “An Elegy for the Canon”:

Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read.

The question them becomes: what is the difference between the reader’s choice and mere list making?

[NYR: Umberto Eco]