It’s… literature

Walkabout podcast – It’s… literature

By the time I finish this post, the article making the rounds may have already died its internet death, in which case I’m either resurrecting it or in denial (I’ll let you judge.) I’m referring to 20 Books You Pretend to Have Read, a post over at Book Riot regarding well-known works of literature that, apparently, carry more cachet than allure. The title says it all; for whatever reason, people are worried that others will think less of them for not having read some book or other. The comments, both there and in other places where the idea has been repeated, often consist of bragging about actually reading most of the list, interspersed with claims of failure to slog through some of the titles. It’s a reflection of our culture’s peculiar views on literature.

I’ll put this right up front: I’m not going to go into how many I’ve read, except to say that it isn’t many, and I couldn’t give the slightest damn what anyone else has. Read whatever you want, and do so for whatever reasons you want – but my suggestion is, do it because you want to, not because you feel obligated by someone’s impression of how important it should be.

Writing is just another art form, which means that certain styles will appeal to certain people, but not everybody. No one should have any reason to be self-conscious about their personal taste, and it bears no reflection on their intelligence or social graces. Somehow, though, we’ve developed the idea that certain books represent an ideal of some kind, the right way to write. This is especially amusing in regards to anything in English, which is such a bastard polyglot that guidelines for spelling and pronunciation are violated almost as often as they are followed, and the few truly original words are often frowned upon by those with more pomposity than sense. English classes, at least in the US but I suspect in Great Britain as well, have been the slowest in abandoning a ridiculous structure wherein there is a supposed authority to be followed – occasionally fostered by the arbitrary pronouncements of self-professed experts. We’ve been bombarded with platitudes over Shakespeare and Hemingway, Bronte and Fitzgerald and Tolstoy, to the point where we believe that if we don’t like these authors there’s something wrong with us – we’re uneducated Philistines or lacking in good taste or some such rot like that. We get the impression that we should at least appreciate such works, if not strive to emulate them as much as possible.

What utter pungent horseshit! Appreciation is an emotion, not a skill. While it is possible to provide insight into how some writer approached their ideas, and thus generate an interest in their style, attempting to coach someone into the ‘proper’ emotional reaction to anything is not going to end well – indeed, there is no shortage of resentment from being “made to read that shit in high school,” which is almost guaranteed to produce exactly the opposite of an appreciation of books.

One can argue that the goal of English Lit classes is only to introduce students to authors with an accomplished sense of style, but the bare facts don’t support this very well. Not only is it the same handful of authors every time, all of them from more than five decades ago, the attitudes plainly displayed by so many literati (and even the existence of that word) illustrate the stunning classism of the field – and a great example of the ‘art snob’ effect. By speaking of their appreciation of the classics, they pronounce their superior intellect and taste to the world at large, the judgment accelerating down the slope of their noses to reach the filthy masses so far below. Even the lengthy and especially turgid tomes bespeak the fortitude of these conquerors, as if traipsing through dismal swamps of prose is commendable rather than indicative of someone who has remarkably warped views of reading. If it’s a chore to get through, perhaps you should be in search of an author that actually holds your attention? Maybe, you know, that could be considered a mark of a good writer, even if “good” is strictly a personal judgment?

There are many cultures that resist change (says the guy sitting in North Carolina,) but none so adamant about it than the subculture of literature. While language is ever-changing, and with it the writing styles and usages of current authors, English classes perpetually harp on the ‘proper’ approaches, as if there was some authority to be found, and dare to grade students on how well they follow structures that will never again see use outside of the classroom – even if the student becomes a successful writer. I will readily admit, there is a lot to be said for making sentences flow smoothly and being able to communicate to the reader without confusion – communication is, after all, what language is for. Which is why weighing it down with rigid structure and byzantine rules is exactly what no one should engage in. Historical usages are fine, for anyone who has an interest in them, but people also used to shit in pots and dump them in the streets; we changed for good reasons, and clinging desperately to past practices from some vague sense of propriety is both pointless and counterproductive.

It used to be that reading was the mark of an educated person, still expressed in the phrase, “well-read.” This was before there was any other source of information dispersal, save for the lecturer or storyteller who was challenged to travel and experience as much as books could communicate. But this is a time long past, as old as many of those ‘classics’ of literature, and we have numerous sources of information available to us now. Reading can no longer be claimed to be the sole path to greater wisdom and thus a prerequisite for knowledge – admittedly, it still rates quite highly, but it’s quite possible to eschew reading altogether and yet produce a significant increase in understanding (it is as I type this that I realize I have to produce this one as a podcast.) And it must be noted that reading was always also a source of entertainment, of provoking the imagination and carrying us away. This particular aspect has long been known as the prime motivator in instilling language skills and writing ability; enthusiastic immersion in books solely for entertainment value still breeds the style and flow found therein, more than any lecture or required reading can do. The emotional involvement in the story attaches to the structure as well – which is again why required reading of ponderous works is precisely the wrong approach.

Being concerned over what anyone else thinks of our reading matter is exactly the same as dressing in the latest fashions: placing insecurity higher than sense, comfort, and entertainment. Read, instead, because it’s fun, or enlightening, or escapism. Drop the story that cannot hold your attention – such things deserve to be ignored. And never hesitate to treat the literature snob with pity, because they fail to grasp what reading can really do for us.

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The title of this post comes from Mr. Pinsky in Throw Momma From The Train, but you certainly recognized it and didn’t need me to belabor the reference. And you undoubtedly caught the book on the coffee table at the end.

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