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January 09, 2004

The Book-Person's Vision

Dear Friedrich --

The Wife and I just spent a happy evening watching the DVD of a 1980 Roger Corman horror picture, Humanoids From the Deep. It's full of tacky pleasures: shag haircuts on both the girls and the boys; lots of naked pre-Nautilus bodies (it was fun to remember that a certain amount of flop-and-dimple was once considered sexy); rubber-suited, seaweed-draped monsters; and a blessed absence of souped-up, computer-generated imagery.

"Humanoids" is a likable hybrid of a movie, caught somewhere between a cheapo postwar monster pic and an '80s conglomerate-driven extravaganza -- which means in practice that the first thing the otherwise very '50s monsters do when they see a girl in a bikini is to yank her top off. (Very '70s). It's from an era when I was able to find contemporary movies a lovable medium, something I can't do anymore. Rather wistfully, I watched the film thinking: now this is a movie I can imagine going out with my friends and having a good time making.

But, for probably quirky reasons, what the movie really made me chew over was the difference between the movie-person's view of the world and the book-person's view of the world.

A quick word of explanation and qualification: by "movie people," I don't mean everyone who likes movies. I mean people who wind up in the field, whether as techies, execs, publicists, journalists, directors, designers, etc. Same for "book people"; for the sake of this discussion, I don't mean book fans. I mean people who spend a hunk of their professional lives in the books world -- as agents, retailers, critics, editors, writers, designers, etc.

I'm going to make the daring assumption that we can all tolerate some wild overgeneralizations for the sake of a point or two. So, if you're with me ...

As you certainly don't need to be told, the movie-person's view of the world swings happily back and forth between art and trash. It's a view that grows out of discussions of the movies and of popular culture that were pioneered by such people as Gilbert Seldes (here), the Cahiers du Cinema crowd (here), and Pauline Kael (here). It's a cartoonish view of their arguments, but nonetheless there it is.

The movie person's conviction is that trash and art are closely and necessarily connected -- that, since movies have their roots in lowbrow entertainment, the ultimate movie is one that fuses the oomph and power of popular entertainment with the values, complexity, and pleasures of high art.

Movie people aren't much different than many foodies, come to think of it. (I haven't been friendly with the kind of food snob who looks down on anything that isn't three stars and French.) The foodies I've known are pluralistic eaters: "I love food," they're prone to say. They adore cheap ethnic dishes, high-end fusion cooking, a good burger, a home-cooked plate of macaroni and cheese, exquisite sushi, etc. It's a kind of daredevil, whirling approach to food. Go for the gusto where and when you find it, caution and cholesterol levels be damned. What they dislike isn't lowbrow food; it's blah or uptight food.

Your typical movie person seems to me a similar creature. He loves monster pictures and avant-garde shorts; he's a specialist in some genre or other; he enjoys a couple of porn stars and worships a few legit actors -- but he's also thrilled to have a chance to argue about Fellini, Godard, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. What the movie person tends to dislike (even if he's profesionally caught up in making them) is middle-of-the-road movies.

For the moment, I'll refrain from all discussion of the downsides and upsides of this mindset. There it is -- the fact of its existence is what interests me for now. Roger Corman himself exemplifies this view: he's a very smart guy, a Stanford engineering grad who hustled trash movies, gave early jobs to some of the most talented American filmmakers of recent decades, and was distributing Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" at roughly the same time he was producing "Humanoids from the Deep."

The book-person view of the world is quite different. It's more respectable. As the recent King-vs.-Hazzard dustup demonstrated (here's a recent Washington Post article about it, which I found thanks to Terry Teachout, who's got a good posting on the topic here), in the world of books trash and art still don't ride in the same section of the bus; the books mindset -- at least the respectable-publishing mindset -- is still segregationist. If the movie-world view is all about the vital connections between art and trash, and about how each is the lifeblood of the other, the book person's imagination is taken up with the neverending struggle of art, talent and brains to triumph over the forces of money, hustle and fame.

Quick note: I've met plenty of individuals who didn't conform to the above templates. I've met snooty film executives, and I've known film critics who, although they write zingy pop-culture criticism, are among the least socially-ept people imaginable. I've also spent lunches and evenings with smooth hipster book-world folk. But I think that, as generalizations, the templates hold true enough; you might make similar flawed-but-useful comparisons between a college's English Department and its Engineering Department.

Movie people roared with laughter on seeing themselves satirized in Robert Altman's "The Player." They didn't take offense at being roughed-up in public; they saw the film's portrayal of their world as accurate and funny. This generally rowdy character helps explain why Quentin Tarantino has been both a critic's fave and a movie-world person's darling. Whatever they think of his films, movie people look at Tarantino -- with his love of violence, of comic books, and of European film, and with his endless babble about art, criticism, storytelling, comedy and visuals -- and they see someone who's got the same movie-lovin' fever that brought them into the field.

American book-world people? A drearier -- and much less worldly -- bunch. (IMHO, of course.) They're often introverts, as well as sensitive souls who howl in outrage if you dare to crack a joke about their sacred cows. Many like little more than working themselves up into a red-faced paroxysm of indignation about the cruelty of ... of ... well, just about everything, you know? I mean, life, huh? (FWIW, and I don't have wide experience here: the British book-world people I've known have been much more buccaneering and extraverted than American books people, and much more devil-may-care. Much better at parties too, by the way.)

God knows movie people aren't afraid of appearing ludicrous. They simply can't be; if they were, they wouldn't last long in the field. (This is one reason movie people crave honors so badly: because they spend most of their lives looking and feeling ridiculous.) Books people, though, are often indignant about how they're seen, or (usually) overlooked. While the movie-people view is that high and low feed each other, book people are quick to sense their dignity threatened by commerce, and are almost never invigorated by a brush with the market. Movie people see real virtues in trash, but there are no (or very few) Tarantinos of high lit.

Explaining why this contrast exists probably isn't a big deal, though I may be missing some pieces. Movies? Well, it's impossible to avoid the presence and importance of sex, money, deal-making, technology, egos and hustle in movie history. Life in the movie world can be rough, and movie pleasures themselves, though they can certainly be refined ones, generally tend to have to do with (and to be based in) personality, sex, action, and drama -- low, easy, crude stuff.

In the books and lit life, it's easy for the person who prefers to remain ignorant of the messy process that gives rise to books to think of reading-and-writing as an epic tale of geniuses fighting to soar above the degradations of everyday life.

Well, bullshit to that!!!

Oops, sorry, got carried away there for a second. Apologies.

Practically speaking, many people who join the books world do so because they're scholarly and quiet sorts. You won't find many movie professionals who spend a lot of time regretting that they left academia, or who went into the moviebiz hoping to find a quiet refuge from the stresses of business, ambition, competition, chores, and sex. But you'll find a lot of such people in the book world.

Also, the simple fact is that, for many people, books equal school -- while movies represent weekends, vacation, time off, romance and sex. And so life in the books world is for many books pros a way of trying to continue living life as though in school. Here's a Robert Birnbaum interview with the Boston Globe book reviewer Gail Caldwell. It's an excellent interview, and Caldwell's an excellent reviewer who does a first-class job. That said, what kind of person does she strike you as? She seems to me to be a born student, ever eager to square off with her next assignment.

As a consequence, the books world has a quiet-study-and-thought-at-war-with-everyday-distractions feeling. IMHO, many of the characteristics, and many of the endlessly recycled arguments and discussions that preoccupy bookworld people -- standards at war with money; the way striving for the good becomes a matter of holding the world at bay; a dreamy leftism -- can be explained from this simple fact: many books people are bugged by life outside of school. They wish life were like school. They were happy in school, and they did well there. Money, business, leaky roofs -- it all interferes with how they want to live, buried in their books. They feel put-upon by life; they want to be taken care of; no one cares; give me a grant; omigod, they're cutting the NEA's budget again!!! ...

While I have some sympathy for that set of feelings and thoughts, I also tire of it quickly. And although I've liked reading and writing a whole lot since I was a small child -- and although I have in fact spent professional time hanging around the books and publishing world -- I simply seem to have a more hardy temperament than true book-world people do. I wouldn't bother with books if I didn't first find it fun to do so; for me, interacting with books begins with recreation, not with an assignment.

I find the gestalt of the book world oppressive; it gives me a pain and it makes me grumpy. And I'm often left wondering: how can books people say of themselves that they love books when they look down their noses at 90% of the books that are published? They disdain not just Stephen King but also self-help books, visual books, and trash biographies; they relish intense discussions about what measures up as a "real book" and what doesn't. (My staggeringly original response to this tiresome issue: They're all books, for god's sake.) IMHO, what books people love isn't books; what they love is their own standards, and their fantasies about what literature should be.

The Wife and I, occasional semi-pro writers both of us, often scratch our heads over the drabness of the respectable books world, which can seem full of people who don't care for sensual pleasures and who are quick to politicize a naive hysteria. The books view of the world is such a prissy and worthy one that it makes me want to throw stones. Stranded among these people, I quickly take to pointing out that the history of books, writing, and reading -- and, yes, even of literature -- is inextricably caught up with such vulgar matters as copyright, business, technology, ambition, ego, politics and money. This particular rant of mine never fails to horrify, I'm pleased to report.

Movie people are usually hearty souls who don't mind a robust disagreement; books people cleave to what's been pronounced worthy. Tell a respectable publishing-world person that you like a Jackie Collins novel (and I liked the one I've read very much), insist that you see real merits in the book, and watch your interlocutor recoil in chagrin. She feels pity, pain and horror for your benighted soul. Tell a film world person, on the other hand, that you adored the movie version of "The Other Side of Midnight" (and I did), and he's likely to crack up and start telling you about all the gaudy trash that he loves too.

What might a more earthy, worldly, and pleasure-centric view of reading and writing be like? I've seen very few signs of such a thing so far. The movies have had Seldes, Sarris, Kael, etc; as far as I know, the books world has had no equivalent. For a few years about a decade ago, Margo Jefferson reviewed books for the NYTimes and seemed to hit exactly the right note. She picked and discussed books like an honest-to-god human being, and not like someone whose dearest dream is to be back in Freshman English. But few people took note of how refreshing and innovative her reviews and her approach were, and she went on to other assignments. (Where, alas, she's been a bore.)

The sensational Princeton historian Robert Darnton has written enlighteningly about reading habits, and about the close connections between philosophy and pornographic fiction in pre-Revolutionary Paris (here). I understand that he's preparing a big work on the history of book publishing -- can't wait! Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading (here) is generally sensible and helpful. The editor (and first-rate raconteur) Michael Korda has written a couple of books (here and here) about American publishing that are worldly, informative and amusing.

A tip of the hat to the Frenchman Daniel Pennac too. Have you run across his short book Better Than Life (highly recommended, and buyable here)? It's a small, informal, point-of-purchase thing, but the respectable lit and publishing world ought to be forced to re-read it every year. Slight though the book is, I think the point Pennac makes in it about pleasure and reading -- that reading and books should be part of the good life -- is far more important than anything I've ever found in the work of many scholarly heavyweights. (George Steiner, are you listening?) Pennac is earthy, practical, and amoral about enjoyment. Here's a link to a page explaining and presenting Pennac's "Reader's Bill of Rights." Here's an interview with Pennac for those who can manage French.

The portrayals of the books life in Gissing's New Grub Street and Balzac's Lost Illusons are still entertaining and accurate. And Charles Simmons' comedy The Belle Lettres Papers (buyable here), which is set at a thinly-disguised New York Times Book Review Section (where Simmons had a job), certainly nails that institution once and for all. Paul Goldstein's Copyright's Highway: The Celestial Jukebox (here) is nonfiction about what's happening with copyright law as we move into the digital era; it's another eye-opener. Eager to hear from you (as well as from visitors) about books, movies, and other sources you've found helpful.

How might a more roughhousing conversation about books and writing get started? I'm not sure, but I do have a hunch. One of the many things about the books world that that took me by surprise was that it hasn't gone through a guilty-pleasures phase. Remember what a kick it was when movie people started admitting that the lousy movies they loved gave them as much pleasure as they got from their art-movie faves? Books people, bizarrely enough, almost never allow themselves such indulgences.

So I vote we start a guilty-reading-and-writing-pleasures discussion. It's too easy to make large claims for good crime writers. It's been done already. And whether or not you think the best crime writers are the equal of the best lit writers (I think they're better), they're clearly solid and good, and few would dispute that. But how about all the lousy books you've loved spending time with? How about all of the throwaway books you've had a good time with? How about the books you never finished yet enjoyed? How about your bad reading habits? These are all part of a rich reading-and-writing life too.

Huh? Wha'? Oh: I guess it's up to me to kick the discussion off. OK, for starters:

  • I'm always in the middle of a half dozen books. Often I finish none of them. This doesn't bother me -- it's part of how I like conducting my reading and writing life, dammit.
  • I think the Italian porno comicbook artist Milo Manara is a genius. Here's a good example of his work.
  • There are many respectable books I'll never read even though I'm semi-interested in them. But I'll often spend a half-hour with such a book, snooping thru the index, the credits and acknowledgments, looking for telltale passages. I feel at the end of the half hour that I know the book pretty well, and I go around giving the world my opinion of the book. Fair? Unfair? I don't care.
  • Since there's almost no one I want to read 600 pages about, I've read very few biographies all the way through.
  • But if I can't be bothered to wade through an entire superlong biography, I'm often pretty happy listening to an abridged audiotape version of it. A four-tape abridgement is the equivalent of about 150 pages -- which is the length I think most biographies should be.
  • I think most novels, especially literary novels, should be about 50 pages long. Or even shorter.
  • I like looking through books that collect and present movie posters.
  • I think some publishers -- for example, Jack Jenson of Chronicle Books, Kent Carroll of Carroll and Graf, and Peter Kindersley of DK -- are more interesting creators of books than most authors are.
  • I adore collections of interviews, and I think it's a wonderful form.
  • I keep a shelf of camp favorites: Pamela des Barres "I'm With the Band" is a proud possession. But I suspect that the Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave's A Dangerous Liaison: One Woman's Journey into a World of Aristocracy, Depravity, and Obsessive Love (buyable here) will probably never be surpassed. It's blissfully vain and self-serious -- wonderful, completely inadvertent trash. This shelf of books is one of my most-prized shelves.
  • I collect books about cheesecake artists.
  • Despite my advanced age and my physical decrepitude, I still flip through sex books looking for the good parts.
  • I own a ton of books I'll never read, and that's OK with me. I enjoy having them around. Some I wouldn't read all the way through even if I had the time. They're there for reference, for grazing through, and for company.
  • So far as nonfiction goes, I see no reason not to consider websurfing the equal of plowing through a nonfiction book. If you're interested in a topic, a website -- or a bunch of websites, since there's no reason to stop at one -- can be as good as a book.
  • I wish more porn-fiction publishers were still around in these post-VCR days.
  • I often enjoy the porn-for-women fiction published by Black Lace, an innovative, female-run porn-publishing company in England. Here's the website of one of Black Lace's authors, Emma Holly. Writing sex scenes (let alone sex stories) that have some conviction and heat isn't easy, and being able to do it seems to be a rare talent. I think Emma Holly is darned good.
  • I think that crime writers are, on the whole, better fiction writers than lit-fiction writers are. For one thing, they've got more respect for their readers; for another, they're less bound up in ego.
  • I think the modernist (pomo/decon/etc) fixation on "writing" per se -- whatever the hell that is -- has been absurdly overdone. Was Defoe a great writer in this idiotically limited sense? Was Stendhal? If I had to choose between "The Charterhouse of Parma" and all of post-WWII American lit's fancy sentences, I wouldn't hesitate for a second about which I'd kiss off.
  • I like and search out thin existential French novellas about women, despair, sex and suicide.
  • I've bought, used and enjoyed a number of For Dummies and Idiots books, some of which struck me as very well done.
  • I think David Pogue (who writes a NYTimes computer column, and is the author of numerous computer-tip books) is first-class.
  • I often have a better browsing time at comic book stores than I do at bookstores. There's more waywardness, more fetishism and more fantasy on display. It's a fringe scene, and the authors, artists, designers and publishers often make freer and more imaginative use of the book medium than respectable authors and publishers do.
  • I thought Robert McKee's how-to-write-a-screenplay book Story (buyable here) was a more interesting book about the movies than any volume of film criticism or film history that I've read in recent years.
  • If a creature arrived from Mars and asked for a book that did a good job of conveying what life in the US is like these days, I wouldn't hand him anything literary, I'd hand him one of The Onion's humorous books of mock news stories.
  • I love short fiction but I hate 99% of contempo literary short stories. It pleases me to go around saying things like "I love short fiction but I despise 'the short story'."
  • I enjoy reading Dave Barry a lot more than I enjoy reading David Foster Wallace.

Incidentally -- a preemptive effort here to keep the conversation from flying off in a direction I'd hate to see it go -- I enjoy quiet and reflective pleasures as much as the next person. Really I do. I'm someone, after all, whose idea of fun includes reading Ellen Dissanayake.

Got any guilty reading-and-books secrets you dare 'fess up to? Or any thoughts about what a more down-to-earth and pleasure-centric view of reading-and-writing might be like?

Suggestions -- and especially confessions! -- from visitors are encouraged too, of course.



posted by Michael at January 9, 2004


Do you (or anyone) think that McKee's seminar
would be of interest even if one has absolutely NO interest in writing a screenplay?

Posted by: David Sucher on January 9, 2004 08:30 PM

What guilty pleasures? I don't feel guilty about enjoying genre fiction, I proclaim my enjoyment to the world. (But then, you knew that.) Because of its disdain for genre fiction, literary fiction by definition isn't going to be about the things I'm interested in: interesting tales, well-told.

My experience is that every person who reads the latest literary fiction in judicious quantities and considers themselves "bookish", there are three or four who simply can't live without books and will unselfconsciously read anything that appeals to them.

(Did you know that four out of five statistics are made up on the spot?)

Posted by: Will Duquette on January 9, 2004 08:30 PM

> ..literary history is a subset of book and publishing history...

Any references or links on this topic? I'm intrigued...

Posted by: Jacob on January 9, 2004 08:56 PM

Manara is a genius. Even though he has done highbrow stuff as well, apart from the porno, in his Giuseppe Bergman series.

And I cherish a collection by Wislawa Szymborska - Nobel Prize winner for literature once - in which she reviews books nobody else ever reviews. Like a DIY guide, Goethe's Wahlverwandschaften, or a communist tractate on fruits and vegetables that have served the people. She shows in this jewel that books, and especially the so called high literature are treated much too seriously. It is the perfect antidote to almost any other book reviewer.

Posted by: ijsbrand on January 9, 2004 09:14 PM


How about almanacs? I could spend hours with world almanacs, sports almanacs, etc.

I also love sleazy Hollywood tell-alls, like "The Club" or "You'll Never Eat Lunch In this Town Again."

I also love movie books---like 75 years of the Oscars, or something like that.

I love biographies, as long as there's nothing too historically important about the main character. Like, Walter Winchall, Jane Fonda, Patty Duke, Meryl Streep, fifties stars of all sorts (Brando, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Debbie Reynolds---I confess, Debbie Reynolds. Who didn't want to know her firsthand version of calling Eddie Fisher's hotel room in the middle of the night and having Liz answer the phone? C'monnn). I tried buying three different bios of different directors---Coppola, Scorsese, Speilberg, but couldn't finish them.

I also really liked "Presumed Innocent" and "The Silence of the Lambs." Read them both in one sitting. And Gore Vidal's "Lincoln".

I also went through a real phase once of True Crime---"Fatal Vision" about Jeffrey McDonald, several about Bundy, the nurse in Texas who offed several patients by injecting something into them. Then I finally went...eeuuww, what am I doing?

Lowbrow enough for ya?

I also wonder if movies had come along sooner if some very entertaining fiction ever would have been written. Like would the Brontes, or Jane Austen or Edgar Allan Poe have been penning screenplays for Bela Lugosi or Tarantino if the outlet had been available?

Posted by: annette on January 9, 2004 10:08 PM

P.S.---I also loved Pauline Kael's criticism collections, and I agree that a really good interview with a funny interviewee is delicious reading. John Lennon's final interview with "Playboy" is one of my all-time favorites.

Posted by: annette on January 9, 2004 10:24 PM

P.P.S.---sorry for being a comments hog, but one other, just because one of this blog's other (shyer) readers, who I don't think ever posts, sent me an email saying her copy is dog-eared: "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady." It's really good!

Posted by: annette on January 9, 2004 10:27 PM

I don't know, wasn't it Beavis who said (responding to some text flashing across the screen in a music video), "If I wanted to look at words, I would be in school."

For myself, I tend to read mostly in highbrow moods, and devote my lowbrow ones to TV, movies, and the internet. But maybe that's because there's a very, very limited amount of lowbrow fiction targeted at guys.

As for the other observations -- too many good ones for one post, you need to spread those gems out over time -- I personally don't have a problem with long novels, as long as their length is justified (War & Peace, A Dance to the Music of Time). Most non-fiction books though, I think, are way, way too long and could easily be reduced to a magazine article.

I think a lot of literary modernist classics are worth reading, but that you don't need to read them all the way through. For me, at least, some of Ulysees was fun, but too much of it stank.

Posted by: williamsburger on January 9, 2004 10:39 PM

David -- I've attended three McKee seminars, believe it or not. He's brilliant, but I'm not sure you want to subject yourself to him unless you at least fantasize about writing screenplays. He is a bombastic, stage-hogging asshole (who enjoys playing that role). Did you ever see "Adaptation"? There's a McKee character in there, very accurately done. If you're curious about screenplays and dramatic structure, I'd suggest (ever so humbly) starting with an easy book on the topic. I think Linda Seger's "How to Make Good Script Great" does a really excellent 101-intro job of laying out what an act is, whawt a scene is, what a beat is, what a "turn" is, etc. McKee's like the grad school seminar version of that, brilliant but sometimes hard to follow.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 9, 2004 10:44 PM

I like non-literary fiction by smart guys who are not artists but instead want to teach you tons of stuff -- Tom Clancy, James Michener, Robert A. Heinlein, Len Deighton, and so forth.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on January 9, 2004 11:11 PM

If it's a book that's been banned somewhere or called "controversial," I like it, or at least feel the need to read it. (When I was 12 I picked up American Psycho and used it as a restaurant and shopping guide for a family vaction to New York City. Also liked the porn passages.)

Other observations, confessions, comments:

I get a kick out of the fact that books can still get a rise out of people--like Michel Houellebecq's novel "Platform" about sex tourism, death and Islam or Catherine Millet's "Sexual Life of Catherine M.

Every third year or so I read the It author of the moment.

Most short stories don't seem to tell stories.

Only James Jones should be allowed to write books over 500 pages.

I can't get enough of books about war.

I grew up on a of lot trash--fantasy, sci-fi, anything on Vietnam, WEB Griffin's the CORPS series. I think that's made me impatient with more literary books that don't really make sense. Take Gravity's Rainbow for example.

Someone was telling me the other day, or I read it somewhere,that the problem with lit nowawdays is that it's all about the sentence not the story. I kind of agree. Louis L'Amour versus Cormac McCarthy...

Posted by: MH on January 9, 2004 11:24 PM

I enjoy good writing. I also like good storytelling. When you get both together, paradise. If it happens to be 'low-brow', that's the critic's problem and not mine.

Hell, I'm writing a lowbrow book. For a look at the rough draft you can go here and get a glimpse at how I mangle things in the first draft. You can also comment on it, but that requires registration.

If it wasn't for bad taste I'd have no taste at all.:D

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 9, 2004 11:52 PM

Hooo-eee, reading these comments is a lot more fun than reading the New York Times Book Review Section. People talking happily about what they really enjoy -- what a fun spectacle! I think the Oscar for honesty so far has to be heading in Annette's direction for 'fessing up to loving almanacs, though I dunno ... Much of Ulysses stank, American Psycho used as a travel book, reading Michener for learning, and Kellogg as usual managing to out-funky everyone ... Well, the competition here is already pretty strong, and the weekend is still young ...

Is anyone else as amazed as I am by how unconcerned the usual book-review pages are about the kinds of books many people read voluntarily? I mean, why are they all covering the same small bunch of serioso titles? Who are they trying to impress? I know the answer, actually, or close enough. But I'm still amazed -- I'd think that a bookchat program or publication that talks about books with the kind of openness and zing (and the kind of respect for real pleasure) that you-all are showing here might do really well. An essay about almanacs; an appreciation of Deighton; Will Duquette on his beef with lit books; IJSbrand telling us about Szymborska's reviews ... Sounds like a lively, quirky publication by a bunch of free-roaming brains to me.

Jacob -- I don't know of any one book that lays it out, and I'm largely relying on my own years messing around the publishing world. But the books I list in the posting (Korda, Darnton, Simmons, New Grub Street) do a good job of conveying what the process and the life are like. I suspect Darnton's history of publishing will be fabulous -- he's supersmart and worldly in ways profs usually aren't about how the process and the product are intertwined. I'd never say (as the Marxists would) that the process -- the conditions of production -- determined the product. But I would say that they condition it. An interesting thing about blogging is that the blogging process is so much easier that new kinds of voices and reading-and-writing experiences are emerging. I wonder if Darnton will ever take note of that ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 10, 2004 12:14 AM

Speaking of enormous books - Erich Auerbach's long but never ponderous "Mimesis" goes three quarters of the way toward explaining what it is about modern literary fiction that upsets even many snobs (myself included - fortunately, since I'm still in college, I've got several centuries' backlog of classics to enjoy). That is to say, modern highbrow fiction, po-mo or otherwise, has got hardly anything to do with reality. Writers like J. S. Foer don't even seem to recognize that words can be used to interpret the world; more realistic fiction, on the other hand, is bound by an obligation to revelation (for which already-canonized writers like Bellow and Carver are largely responsible) that somehow prevents the kind of luminous representation of the real that writers like Stendhal used to such brilliant (and enjoyable) effect.
This is the result, to use Auerbach's pet phrase, of a new separation of styles. High literary fiction nowadays has its own obnoxious rhetoric - periods, mostly, of unnatural length or terseness - that prevents a realistic representation of the world through thought. Comparing even a moderately competent modern writer - Ian McKewen, say - to someone like Nell Freudenberger (an altogether readable example of a style we might call "high mediocre") is a bit like setting Shakespeare side by side with Corneille. One makes people speak and think, the other doesn't; in consequence, Corneille, Freudenberger and her fellows are merely well-intentioned shifters of statues.
This isn't to say that a writer like Tom Clancy is, by default, superior to his more literary competitors. He hardly could be, given that he operates primarily by holding up a very flattering mirror to his audience. It is to say, however, that modern literary culture is blind and therefore dysfunctional. On the other hand, this has more or less always been the state of things - the world of books is generally a swamp out of which one or two classics come in a decade.

Guilty Pleasure: Manon Lescaut.

Posted by: Martin Guerre on January 10, 2004 12:43 AM

How about almanacs? I could spend hours with world almanacs, sports almanacs, etc.

Annette, the FBI agent will see you now ...

Anyway, I suspect a pleasure-centered theory of reading and writing would look quite a bit like Roland Barthes's Pleasure of the Text, in which he compares the experience of literature to that of sex.

As for guilty pleasures, I've decided not to feel guilty over pleasures -- except, of course, when they happen to be respectable.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 10, 2004 01:02 AM

Serioso books? Natch. Go for bubblegum and try YA (young adult) fiction. I particularly enjoy Mordechai Richler's _Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang_, which tells the story of little Jacob, who is two plus two plus two years old. He "fails" to order a bag of tomatoes properly, and is sent to the child's prison, which is run by a former pro wrestler. There are talking chickens and fish. There is smoke. Chocolate and goo blobs add intrigue to the plot.

Goo blobs? Goo blobs. Revive your inner junior high geek and check out some fab YA authors: Lois Lowry, Philip Pullman, Jerry Spinelli, Katherine Patterson, Jean Craighead George, and Lawrence Yep.

Posted by: SuzieQ on January 10, 2004 01:41 AM

I love technothrillers, and in addition to the old standards, there are some really fun relative newcomers. Jack du Brul is good. Matthew Reilly is the gem of the bunch, though - you can just see him smiling in delight as he goes. I would recommend Temple or Area 7 in particular, but they're all great fun.

More or less out of random curiosity, I've been browsing fantasy/romance and horror/romance hybrids lately. No particular recommendations, but it's funky to see familiar tropes through new lenses.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh on January 10, 2004 02:20 AM

Omigosh, Tim---you're right! I forgot a terrorist hallmark was supposed to be almanacs! But I don't carry them around, just read them. Really, your honor....

Posted by: annette on January 10, 2004 07:16 AM

Hmmmm....I generally dont feel "guilty" about what I read. "Sheepish" might be a better word at times especially when my dear husband is reading some long boring tome on the history of waterpower or something and I am reading something he calls "fluff."

But I do like cookbooks, especially if they were written before 1950. And space opera, a relatively recent discovery. And the Kay Scarpetta books by Patricia Cornwell. I used to read Tom Clancy books until he killed off the entire American Government including Congress, The Cabinet and the Pres in one fell swoop of an airliner and left, who else, Jack Ryan, in charge.

What gets me the most razzing from folks is Trollpe and Dickens, tho. Either the reaction is a mystified "Who?" or a smug look and a muttered "hack writers."

Oh, and bathroom books...those compilations of short blurbs of things that are perfect for short periods of time when you have a few minutes, um, alone, to read.

And SuzieQ is right about kids fiction--there is some dynamite writing that adults are missing out on. I second most of her suggestions and would add Robin McKinley, Eleanor Estes, Margarite D'Angeli and Lloyd Alexander. And Harry Potter, too. It may not be great writing but goshgollygee it's a fun story.

I am reading a book called "Knitting for Anarchists" right now if that tells anyone anything.

Posted by: Deb on January 10, 2004 10:49 AM

Sheepish works!

So does juvenile fiction. I'd forgotten that I'd read and enjoyed a couple of VC Andrews novels. "Flowers in the Attic" is pretty terrific, and I even enjoyed one that I'm pretty sure was written by the writer the family hired to keep the series going after VC died. I enjoyed that one too. Is it illegal of me to say I found the books pretty sexy?

Deb's got the right spirit too -- books you "play with" or nose around in instead of plowing diligently through. I'd say I play with five books for every one I plow through. Which is not to disrespect such books, at all -- I often enjoy a book I play with more than a book I plow through.

A good quote book, for instance, can be wonderful to spend a few minutes here and there with --what's wrong with that? Why isn't that considered a "good book"? (Let alone a "real book"?)

The tedious people would have us believe that a "real book" is something that ought to be "really written," and "really read" (ie., plowed diligently through). I'm glad such books exist, but there are skillions of other ways of making books, and skillions of other ways of interacting with them too. I'm surprised these ways aren't more openly recognized and discussed.

Cookbooks, juvenile novels, technothrillers, almanacs, scandalous French memoirs, porn, visual books of many kinds, collections of reviews, atlases, compilations of lists and quotes and jokes ... What a cool and open-ended world, and what a fabulous variety of ways we have to interacting with it ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 10, 2004 12:04 PM

P.P.S.---sorry for being a comments hog, but one other, just because one of this blog's other (shyer) readers, who I don't think ever posts, sent me an email saying her copy is dog-eared: "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady." It's really good!
annette said the above.

Sci Fi and Fantasy- Phillip Pullman, Asimov's Foundation Series always gave me a thrill, Hicthhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, those Terry Prachett novels, Ender's Game and Anne McCaffery, etc.

'black' books- the usual suspects here- Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, bell hooks.

what I call 'trashy' books, but I don't know what the genre is called- She's Come Undone, Confessions of a Shopholic.

graphic novels- are these considered 'books'? On one hand, they are in book form, in the other, they aren't prose. Anyway, the usual suspects on these too - Maison Ikkoku, Love and Rockets, Paradise Kiss(ok, maybe not usual), Hana Yori Dango(called Boys Over Flowers)

I like non fiction too- I think that Stephen Jay Gould's Panda's Thumb was tops, and enjoyed The Tipping Point. The Way We Never Were was pretty good too.

Posted by: Shannon on January 10, 2004 12:24 PM

I've been a fan of porn actress Nina Hartley ever since discovering her bubbly enthusiasm in a compilation entitled "Girls Who Give Handjobs" (fast becoming a lost art, I might add). I met her once when she was performing at a local "gentlemen's club" several years ago. Candida Royalle's FEMME line of erotic videos is quite good. Check out "Eyes Of Desire".

Posted by: Michael Serafin on January 10, 2004 01:07 PM

Darn---I was hoping that Deb was going to keep her streak going and say she draped a dishtowel over her head in order to read "The Nun's Story" or something!

Cookbooks are good, too!

Posted by: annette on January 10, 2004 01:11 PM

Hollywood Babylon, by Kenneth Anger. I didn't realize until I read it how badly I needed to know the real story of Jayne Mansfield's death.

I also owe a suspiciously large part of my inadequate education to Wallace and Wallechinsky's The Book of Lists.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on January 10, 2004 01:31 PM

Whether embarrassing or not, I used to read any book on religion ... conservative, liberal, old, recent, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist. I'm forcing myself to quit actually. I've decided that I found what I was looking for a few years ago, yet I couldn't seem to let go of the habit. I'll pass the "Religion" section at a book store now and gaze wistfully at the titles thinking, "Yes, those were good times."

The same thing also happens when I pass the "Self Help" isle. However, this infatuation I find VERY embarrassing. Maybe it was my age-old major in psychology that got me hooked. But God help me, I still love them. Who could possibly resist titles like, "Taming Your Inner Gremlin" or "Who Moved My Cheese?" Who? If anyone makes fun of this ridiculous pastime of mine, I'll... I'll... reread "Your Erroneous Zones" yet again.

Posted by: laurel on January 10, 2004 01:55 PM

Annette, there are certain things even I wont admit to in public....suffice it say I have an old and battered copy of "The Nun's Story" on my bookshelves, ok.

Posted by: Deb on January 10, 2004 05:15 PM

Hey, no dis to "The Nun's Story" (Or to Deb!). I read it and enjoyed it. Is that embarassing?

While mentioning these two books right after "The Nun's Story" might seem to be a non sequitur, someone mentioned Des Barres' "I'm With the Band." They might also enjoy "Rebel Heart: A Journey Through American Rock 'n Roll" by Bebe Buell, Liv Tyler's mom and a seventies groupie chick. Cameron Crowe kept a copy of her picture taped up when he wrote "Almost Famous." Through American Rcok 'n Roll ain't braggin' if you did it! :)

Posted by: annette on January 10, 2004 05:40 PM

Hey Annette, did Leslie Caron or Audrey Hepburn play the nun in the movie? I cant remember.

And I read dictionaries for amusement too. Old ones are more amusing than newer ones and my goal, which strikes most of my family as bizarre, is to someday own a complete OED.

Posted by: Deb on January 10, 2004 06:12 PM

Audrey Hepburn. 1959.

And did anybody notice that "blog" was added to the dictionary this year?

Posted by: annnette on January 10, 2004 06:16 PM

Annette, there are certain things even I wont admit to in public....suffice it say I have an old and battered copy of "The Nun's Story" on my bookshelves, ok.

I have Lewis's The Monk. What a wonderfully bizarre tome it is. Very Gay, too -- but so was Lewis, as far as we can tell.

I also own a copy of Witness. Admittedly, the book is not as fashionable as it used to be, but that's because recently disclosed US intelligence has proven Chambers's account of Communism correct in every detail.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 10, 2004 07:26 PM

enjoyed the article & comments; i pretty much agree. but if you think the world of "serious fiction/literature" is stuffy, you should try the world of "poetry"--!

i write on my blog about truly awful writers of the past (recent & farther back), which somehow fascinate me--as well as my own pantheon of Greats. i'm afraid not many of my literary compadres appreciate such a variegated sensibility, though their movie tastes (as you note) are hardly so exclusive...

Posted by: graywyvern on January 10, 2004 07:45 PM

So far no one seems to have mentioned Dr. Seuss -- who used the techniques of the advertising artist to create some of the most engagingly naughty books of our time. It goes right back to *Hop on Pop* with the page that has the rhyme "play-day -- we play all day" with two teddy bears playing, and on the very next page "fight-night -- we fight all night!" and the picture showing the same two teddy bears slinging at each other with baseball bats. Is there the slightest chance that such a knowing work -- for preschoolers, yet -- would be accepted today by any publisher? And let's see -- *Cat in the Hat* teaches children that all the interesting stuff happens after the stranger gets into the house; *Mulberry Street* is all about lying to your parents, *Green Eggs and Ham* is a sales pitch in which the customer is convinced to eat something disgusting... one could go on. Great stuff.

In an unrelated point, Tolkien is also considered the epitome of trash literature, in many quarters.

Posted by: Redcoffin on January 10, 2004 08:28 PM

For Michael... I'm a little reluctant to recommend something you can't read, but as long as you're going to bring up Euro-comics by mentioning Milo Manara, I'm going to mention something you'd probably love if you could only read it. It's a Dutch series called FRANKA by an artist named Henk Kuijpers, which has gone through at least 17 volumes (or "graphic novels"). It started out as kind of cutesie-wootsie adventure/comedy kid stuff, but evolved considerably. In her present version, Franka is a pretty-girl private detective (about six feet tall and amazingly bosomed) specializing in retrieving lost or stolen works of art. But that doesn't begin to describe the strip. Kuijpers draws amazing cartoon panoramas of modernday Amsterdam street scenes, Franka's detective capers in the art world have a sly wink of knowing satire to them, and the stories have just gotten more hard-boiled as thrillers over time. The books are now definitely for adults and often take place in a seamy underworld where drugs and prostitution are part of the background, yet it's all drawn in a more than slightly loopy cartoon style that may not have evolved quite _enough_ from the early days of the more juvenile orientation of the strip. Kuijpers knows his way around American pop culture, too: I particularly recommend his tenth Franka volume, "Gangsterfilm" just for the 1950s American visuals. (In fact, a Dutch friend had Kuijpers autograph a book for me at a comics fair. Hearing the first name of the book's eventual recipient, Kuijpers drew a picture of Franka pointing to an election poster reading "I Like Ike.") I realize getting hold of this stuff might be a problem, since I don't know of any Dutch equivalent for Amazon, and you can't read it anyway... Oh well, maybe IJsbrand knows about it...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 10, 2004 08:51 PM

My guilty pleasures:
"Valley of the Dolls" - I was so embarassed that I actually put a book cover on my vintage late-70's edition so I could read it on the bus. I could not put it down.

Untold numbers of self-help books that I'd be ashamed to tell my professors that I enjoy. (I'm an English major.)

English teachers today have absolutely no taste for good trash. They are too "into" dour, obscure post-colonial minority Marxist writers to allow themselves to enjoy a good old time in bed with a spicy book.

Posted by: SixFootPole on January 10, 2004 11:31 PM

Tim, ok I will bite. Which Lewis wrote "The Monk"? Sinclair or C.S.? And I am gathering that Witness is not the book the movie with Kelly Whatername and Harrison Ford was based on, right.

SixFootPole--English teachers have NEVER had a good sense of trash--at least they didnt when I got a degree in it close to thirty years ago--they were all pushing dour,post-colonial minority Marxist writers back then. It doesnt go with the job description.

Posted by: Deb on January 10, 2004 11:56 PM

Actually, given your description of the motives of the literati--

Money, business, leaky roofs -- it all interferes with how they want to live, buried in their books.

--it kind of makes hash of the old criticism of lowbrow books as 'escapist.'

Actually, the other night as I was reading a detective story because business worries weren't allowing me to sleep, I thought again how silly a criticism that always was. Escapism is probably the single best reason that books exist. And people who downgrade 'escapism' probably don't have nearly enough grim reality in their everyday lives.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 11, 2004 12:01 AM

Friedrich von Blowhard wrote: "Escapism is probably the single best reason that books exist."

I think a lot of people mistakenly believe that "literature of consolation" -- which is what Tolkien once said all fantasy should be -- means "literature of appeasement."

As for guilty pleasures -- I confess to a secret pleasure in racist colonial literature like Rudyard Kipling's "Little Foxes," about the Brits putting Africa in order. Borges once said that Kipling's later work is better than Kafka, but try defending him in a literature department these days. But my "hide it on a train" confession would be Masamune Shirow. Amazing how many people confess to graphic novels. The people who write them are always complaining that they want "legitimacy." They should be careful what they wish for.

Trash literature is trash literature, but aren't there limits? It seems that using Google to search for unusual keyword combinations in* and reading what comes up -- that just goes beyond the pale.

Posted by: Redcoffin on January 11, 2004 12:24 AM

Tim, ok I will bite. Which Lewis wrote "The Monk"?

Matthew Lewis, in 1796.

Witness is the anti-Communist autobiography of Whittaker Chambers (of Alger Hiss fame). The American Left has worked for fifty years to discredit the book and the man, but recent Venona Files transcripts have revealed that Chambers was right on the money.

i write on my blog about truly awful writers of the past (recent & farther back)

Do you know William McGonagall? I can quote a few of his verses from memory. Hilarious stuff.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 11, 2004 12:30 AM

A guilty pleasure of mine is a chap by the name of Lin Carter. Did a series on an ersatz Conan by the name of Thongor.

He also wrote a series about a stereotypical mighty thewed hero adventuring around the time the Moon is supposed to crash into the Earth. In the series (...Of the World's End) he parodies many an adventure story trope and cliche.

The series itself being an expansion and re-imagining of his "Titan of the World's End". A vicious, dark satire of the same stories he would later treat more gently in the series.

With Lin Carter what you get is someone who's best work (Titan of the World's End) is unjustly ignored because he did write some Godawful dreck. Enjoyable dreck, but dreck. Since people tend to generalize about others, some rather good examples of the writing and story telling art from an obscure author get overlooked because he did pen some rusty clunkers.

Then there's "Lankar of Callisto". (Part of his Callisto series, the series itself being Lin's 'tribute' to Edgar Rice Burroughs and similar authors.) The 'in-joke' behind the story being that Carter (the hero of the tale) was then suffering from more ailments than an educated hypochondriac and diagnosed with inopeable cancer.

So if you need some hard core guilty pleasures do a google on "Lin Carter" or "Ken St. Andre" and see what you get. (Ken is a big time Lin Carter fan and something of a spiritual successor. But you'll want the designer and author of the Tunnels and Trolls roleplaying game Ken St. Andre instead of somebody else.)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 11, 2004 01:39 AM

I've read some Lin Carter... I think his tragedy was that he was such a fan and enthusiast for various writers of fantasy fiction that his own books were seldom more than pastiches of other writers' work. He wrote several series that more or less replicated Edgar Rice Burroughs' interplanetary adventures, and of course there were the Robert E. Howard-imitating Thongor that pastiched Conan, and he imitated other, less-known writers. I'm sure he had fun doing it, but as a reader I have to wonder where were the novels that only Lin Carter could have written? On the other hand, as a fan and enthusiast for fantasy fiction, his non-fiction surveys and his editorship of Ballantine Books' fantasy line helped introduce the field and a lot of forgotten authors to a new generation of fans. I think it's in his non-fiction where his real legacy lies.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 11, 2004 03:03 AM

This is a great topic! Partly for work and partly for personal interest, I've recently been researching and thinking about why boys (say, 9 - 18) allegedly don't read. I say allegedly because that's what I hear from publishers, librarians, teachers and parents--"well, we all know that boys just don't read." However, I happened to find a great book called "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys" last weekend--it's by two education professors who did a study with high school boys on their literacy habits. Turns out that boys DO read: they surf the Internet to find movie reviews, read manuals about fixing motorcyles, read the sports page in the newspaper to follow their favorite teams, read magazines, etc. But they don't often read books because that is "schoolish" and the books they are given in English class don't resonate with them. (One reason for this is that boys want "exportable" text--that is, a cool scene from a book or a piece of information from the newspaper that they can quickly and easily drop into a conversation with friends. Most books assigned in school are too nuanced to be useful in this way.)

Anyway, this has led me to think about how books could be written to reach boys; I suspect that many of the approaches that might work would mean that the final product would not be considered a "real" book. For example: Short chapters, lists, sidebars, etc would be good for non-fiction. Novels that deliberately draw on the visual imagery, action and pace of Hollywood movies. Oh, and book covers that don't look girl-y (i.e., soft colors, pastel paintings, etc.)

I also love the idea (from these blog postings) that books could be presented with verve and spirit--what a great idea to publish books that have a "buccaneering sensibility"! I think the key to reaching younger readers is to make books sound like fun--just as TV, movies, video games, etc. are fun.

I agree with several posts that there are a lot of fun YA novels and they've had great sales success. However, I think that success is still being driven by the girls in the audience.

I'd love to hear ideas from others about how to get the boys to read...

Posted by: sharper on January 11, 2004 02:47 PM

On a sober note... Boys get hooked on reading and writing if teachers tap into their interests outside of school whether it is sport, video games or four-wheel-driving, a program in primary schools has discovered

Posted by: Jozef on January 11, 2004 06:40 PM


everytime a teacher tells me boys dont read I just snort with laughter. I've been taking away books from my now 16 yo son for years as "motivating device" to get him to anything BUT read. The problem with the establishment that I see is that they are starting too late and they are sending mixed messages.

Reading as a love and as a habit should be taught and modeled BEFORE the kid hits school. I read to my son constantly from birth onward, put books in his crib, bought him books, took him to the library, read him comic books, sports stats, etc etc. We talked about what he read, shared jokes and scenes from books and generally included it in our family life. We read road signs, backs of cereal boxes, instructions for legos, adult magazines that had topics--dinosaurs and space were hot for longer than I care to remember-- that interested him etc. By the time he got to the teachers and librarians he was soooo ready to read and love books that there was very little they could do to stop him.

Schools and parents also send mixed messages to boys. Boys are supposed to be athletic, energetic and rough and ready. They arent supposed to enjoy something as girlie as reading a book for a couple hours. There are many after school and summer sports for boys to play in but very few activities that require reading to enjoy. Given a choice between a boy who can tune up the Chevy and carry a touchdown pass and one who can tell you the finer points of a book, my bet is most parents will unconsciously choose the former. Not that they are mutually exclusive. They just seem that way.

As far as literature that interests boys, there seems to be plenty of it from what I can tell and more and more each year. My son would have loved the Dav Pilkey books, for instance. Handled well, traditionally girl books like the Little House series are just as much fun for little boys as little girls--they are going to have to spend a whole lot of their lives with women, you know.

I do agree with you about the "exportable text" thought tho. My son often drops jokes from books into his conversations with friends. He also avidly reads jokes in magazines just to be able to tell them at school.

And he's not the quiet bookish sort either. He watches football with a passion, tunes up the Chevy, hunts, blacksmiths in his papa's forge and loves Star Wars. He's also ADD and by the school's definition is a kid at risk for reading disabilities. Feh.

Posted by: Deb on January 11, 2004 06:43 PM

David Foster Wallace. He's observant, fresh and funny. Go Dave! If he writes another giant book, I'll read it.

Posted by: j.c. on January 11, 2004 07:57 PM

I admit to reading romance novels, especially historical ones. The cheesier, the better. Johanna Lindsey, who really only wrote the same story a few score times, is one of my favorites. Anne McCaffrey's Pern series has also remained gooey fun for years. Techno thrillers never really grab me, even though I love them in movie form. But then, I like those for the explosions.

Posted by: Elisabeth on January 11, 2004 10:20 PM

Who here remembers Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"? The book of the century according to some. An exercise in bad masturbation according to this then young reader. (Pretentious crap was my assessment.)

A couple of months later I picked up a book by the title of, "Ludwig von Wolfgang Vulture." A parody of JLS. "Ludwig von Wolfgang Vulture" is the story of a near-sighted buzzard with a yen for health food and a desire to learn speed reading. It is not only a satire on the drivel found in JLS, it also pokes fun at the health food craze of the time, exercise regimens, popular culture, and (in case you didn't know), speed reading.

"Going fast means never having to say you're slow." Ludwig von Wolfgang Vulture

"A thousand deaths is not cowardice, it is merely repetition." Ibid.

If you find a copy, get it. It's a hoot.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 11, 2004 11:07 PM

Count me in as a reader of romances. Marion Chesney writes wonderful Regencies that are a step above the usual. In her "Poor Relations" series of six books, the storyline focuses more on the older people, cast aside by their wealthy families, who decide to band together and open a hotel in London during the high season. The idea was that they would embarass their relatives (by going into business!) into handing over more of the ready. There's still the usual romances, but they're treated like they were in Marx Brothers movies, e.g., something to get over with quickly and back to the comedy.

And speaking of "the ready," that reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote the same book over and over again, but did it really, really well for an awful long time.

"My Secret Life" is, ahem, eye-opening porn, and "The Pearl" is a great collection of Vic porn. The best in one-handed reading, you might say.

"Who Had Who" is a British book that took the "6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon" and applied it to sex. They devoted an entire chapter to Ryan O'Neal.

Then there's George Macdonald Fraser's "The Pyrates," which takes nothing seriously except the characters, and tells a ripping story. I've read that about six times so far. (Of course, that leads into the "Flashman" series, but with its concentration on telling the dirty side of history, there's a chance you might learn something, and thus is beyond the reach of this discussion.)

Posted by: Bill Peschel on January 12, 2004 12:27 AM

What fun to meet and hear from people who really enjoy books, and feel free to interact with books in a whole variety of ways. It's really kind of shocking how pained many "books people" can act around many books ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2004 01:35 AM

You mention Ellen Dissayanake, but she's basically "pop" compared to the general run of aestheticians in whose line she falls--after Plato and Aristotle, we're talking about the likes of Immanuel Kant, whose "Critique of Judgment" my poor students admitted was basically unintelligible (most academics don't even understand his concepts of purposiveness and disinterestness, though they may quote them endlessly) on down to the thick but stirring goo of Shaftesbury, Hegel, Heidegger, Bell, and the rambling later Wittgenstein, and then there are the barely comprehensible but strangely magnetic babblings of Adorno, Lyotard, Althusser, Derrida, and so on. By comparison, really, Dissayanake is Kool-aid--but satisfyingly refreshing, by any measure.

Posted by: Tregaron on January 12, 2004 04:27 AM

We all must remember that great works of literature are not just books but artistic masterpieces. English professors seem snobbish because they see themeselves not just as avid readers but also as art critics, as do many over-enthusiastic undergraduates. The entertainment derived from such great works is not just reading them, but in analysis, discussion, debate. Very few books can capture the imagination as much as the great works, changing one's perception of other books that do not aspire to such heights. After reading O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried', I knew I would never read a Tom Clancy novel again.

Are the same criticisms levelled at book people aimed at connoisseurs of classical music or high art? Should lovers of Mozart be chased out of the temple for not liking 'American Idol'?

Who's more snobbish? The one who doesn't like Jackie Collins or the one who thinks that all literary works should be less than fifty pages long?

Posted by: Stephen Fleming on January 12, 2004 05:54 AM

I actually saw "Humanoids from the Deep" in a decaying old cinema in Shepherds Bush over twenty years ago. Both were terrible.

Posted by: Peter Briffa on January 12, 2004 05:56 AM

I can't believe you don't know the Washington Post's wonderful critic, Michael Dirda, who is a man after your own heart. Here's his recent Christmas wish list:¬Found=true

Posted by: Theophylact on January 12, 2004 09:28 AM

Your distinction is dead-on, and I pleady guilty on all counts. I'll watch and enjoy pretty much any movie that's "good" in its own terms, whether commodity Hollywood fare or the artistically ambitious. But I read almost nothing but "serious" fiction. Why? Principally because reading takes time and commitment, and watching movies doesn't. There are so many books that I'd like to read but haven't got round to. But I don't have time to read those *and* veg out with the potboilers. But there's anothre reason, more important: in my view, popular movies are by and large simply better than popular novels. Why is that? Perhaps it's because movies are an expensive, complex collective endeavour and novels aren't. But more likely, I think, it's because modern movie audiences are visually highly sophisticated and "movie-literate" (and hence won't tolerate poorly crafted movies) but have the lost the ability to discriminate between good and bad writing. Once in a while I pick up a piece of popular fiction, often because someone's recommended it, but invariably toss it aside after three pages. I just can't believe that people will tolerate such a stew of cliches, bad grammar, misuse of words, witless wit and so on and on. The plain bad writing typical of many pop novels wouldn't be tolerated even in poppest of tabloid newspapers.

Having said all of which, pretty much all modern serious fiction is overhyped and unreadable too. Discrimination is all...

PS What about music? Nick Hornby recently went on record (sorry) as someone who won't listen to anything except pop music, broadly defined, and went on to one-line dismiss everything else (for example, classical music is "too much like going to church"). This struck as one of the crassest remarks I'd ever read by a novelist-- so much so that my previous minor reservations about Hornby blossomed into full-blown dismissal. Any thoughts on the even bigger divide in music?

Posted by: Graham Finnie on January 12, 2004 09:35 AM

The Monk is a great Gothic trash read. It was written by Matthew Lewis.

My favorite trash reads are noir novels written in the 50s.

Posted by: Carrie on January 12, 2004 10:26 AM

Thankfully, literary merit and enjoyable writing are not mutually exclusive. Technical achievements aside, The Great Gatsby is the best book I have ever read. It's funny, sad, beautifully written, and amazingly concise (it's only about 180 pages - the length most books, with exceptions, should be). The Sun Also Rises and Lolita come to mind as well. Poetry, fortunately, is another area where the two mix often. I know people who read Dr. Seuss and e.e. cummings in equal measure and spend as much time with Macavity as with The Waste Land. And then you get a poem like Prufrock that's thoroughly enjoyable and worthy of serious study. I think there's a reason these are classics.

Posted by: Marc on January 12, 2004 10:41 AM

Fun conversation, and many thanks again to all. Don't stop gabbing now -- interested in all kinds of feedback here.

Again, y'all are suggesting to me what a real, lively, open book-chat publication could be like. What appalls me about the bookchat world isn't (generally) the quality of the reviewing or essay-writing, which I (generally) find pretty good and better; it's the ultra--restricted view of what what interacting with books consists of.

Only because I just finished my coffee and am feeling a bit revved, let me rant on a bit more. Responses to this are encouraged too.

I notice that many of us tend to gravitate back to the pop novel vs. literary novel thing. Interesting, and there's much to be said there. (Time for another posting, not that I'm a specialist in pop novels.)

But I also want to put in a pitch for two considerably more general topics:

* The many kinds of books we interact with: reference books, picture books, joke books, instruction books, self-help books, quote books, bathroom-reading books. I'm looking around my desk and office as I sit here typing, and I see (in addition to the "real books," some books about yoga, a few hot-to-paint books, a few computer-tip books, a couple of bios and autobios of film-word figures I'm interested in, a whole bunch of film reference books, a couple of books about Tantric sex (time for another posting), collections of essays and reviews, books on tape, comic books and graphic novels ...

I hereby submit that, IMHO of course, each and every one of these is a "real book." Each one has been made; each one has a creator (or bunch of creators); and I have interacted or will interact with each one of these books, probably in some way that's semi-unique to that book.

I also volunteer that each and every one of these book-interactions might very well give me as much pleasure and utility (whatever that means) as might "really reading" an example of the book world's idea of a "real book."

I honestly can't explain why the bookworld, for example, hasn't recognized Ephraim Katz's "Film Encyclopedia" as the classic book it is. It's quite an amazing achievement -- the best film encyclopedia ever put together. IMHO, it long ago proved itself more substantial and enduring than whatever lit novel was on the cover of the NYT Book Review the week the Film Encylcopedia first was published. Yet Ephraim Katz, to my knowledge, was never profiled, and no feature article was ever published about him in a bookchat publication.

* But I also want to focus a bit on the many ways in which we interact with books. A book doesn't have to be "good" in the book-world sense for us (or at least me) to enjoy it -- to giggle a bit, or learn something, or dally away the time, or provoke our interest, or dazzle our eyes .... Subject matter can carry me through; utility can make me glad to own it, etc. There are many, many books I've enjoyed that I've never finished, and in many cases never expected to finish -- I've poked around in them, and that's been fun, as well as terrific in its own right. There are visual books -- does anyone start on page on of a visual book and laboriously turn pages until it's over? As earlier commenters pointed out: hey, how about almanacs and cookbooks? And, of course, there are what are usually considered to be throwaway or trash books -- self-help, financial tips. I suspect that nearly everyone, proud of it or not, has spent a few hours poking around at least a few of those.

Here's my twofold purpose in making the above observations. (I'm into bullet points today.)

* First is that I do generally buy the movie-person's view of art -- that low and high pleasures feed each other. My love of a fine literary novel is an extension of, the pleasure that I take in interacting with books generally. It isn't distinct from the pleasure I take in all kinds of books; instead, it's an aspect of that.

And how about serious lit? Well, like many people who have a taste for it, I worry about the fate of serious lit; I think it's steered itself off into a bizarro little corner where it's become (all too often) a very un-vital, coterie activity. It has, IMHO, walled itself off from the vitality to be found in the rest of publishing, let alone the rest of life. IMHO: the lit crowd need to open itself up to the kind of energy, commerce, life, and vitality that you can find right before you in the rest of publishing. Instead, the lit world tends to hold its nose and turn away. Which might or might not result in some good work -- but the batting average these days is remarkably low. It's also bad p-r. I'm all for showing terrific achievements some respect. But I don't see any need to be hyper-rigid about it.

These are very typical complaints, by the way, and not just mine: too much cotempo lit (and serious writing of all kinds) has renounced narrative and character, even subject matter. Instead, it's all about "issues" and "writing" and word games and ego. It's a bunch of people -- fewer in number every year -- showing off for each other. Out of something or other (high mindedness is my guess) it has renounced almost all of the basic-and-easy reasons why people have traditionally paid attention to books. That strikes me as self-destructive behavior, a way of turning yourself into something completely irrelevant to most people's lives. Which is something that no one should pass a law against, and I've got an appetite (however limited) for coterie, avant-garde fiction myself. But the whole activity gets to be a little bloodless. The leaves start to fall off the trees.

And the conviction that "real book" people have that the whole industry and institution of reading-and-writing exists so that this very specialized activity can occur strikes me as narrow-minded (and, as I say, destructive to the art of the book) to the max. In my view, literature arises out of the general activity of reading and writing, all of which is based on the pleasure people take in the two activities --- and the pleasure we take in them comes in many different varieties.

* The second arm of my agenda (lordy, the caffeine really is pounding through me) is to try to open people's eyes to the many really marvelous achievements in book-making that already do exist. "All-word books written by prose specialists and intended to be read straight through"? That's a very, very narrow segment of the books world, and it's unfortuntely one that we tend to fixate on.

And, between you and me, the taste for this particular kind of book is a very, very specialized taste. It's a good taste to have, but I think all of us who have it need to be a little more tolerant and open to those who don't, as well as to the many kinds of books that aren't intended to appeal to that taste. It's a very strange activity, sitting there, glasses on, plowing through heaps of prose in a linear fashion. And as Robert Darnton and others have shown, it isn't the way most readers through history have read. The more general way people "read" is to interact with books on their own terms: a few pages here, looking at some pictures there, scribbling a few notes here, maybe plowing through a book there, picking one book up and setting another aside, flipping through indexes, rummaging around for a list or a quote ... The idea that the only kind of "real" reading is plowing straight through, cover to cover, heaps of prose seems to come from our English teachers -- who, we have to remember, are generally people who read from assignments, not from pleasure...

How about instruction books, kids' books, visual books, reference books, lifestyle books? Many of which are, IMHO, quite amazing achievements in book-making. Years ago, as I was learning my way around book publishing, a friend with experience said to me something I found mega-helpful. He said, "Look, don't get hung up on the idea of writing books. Think of it as making books instead." It was a brilliant and mind-opening tip that shook a lot of English-major foolishness off me. For one thing, it opened my eyes to the many people who play roles in the creation of books: editors, photographers, publishers, anthologizers, designers, etc. It reminded me that books don't exist without a big infrastructure of talent, money, distribution, etc. For another, it make me take note of all books as made-and-created things, every bit as much as any selfserious attempt at literature is a made-and-created thing.

From this point of view, books such as children's books and cookbooks become quite marvelous, even avant-garde -- proto-web products. You use them in your own way -- you put together your own experience. You might go through them in a linear fashion; you might not. They're often hypertexts -- you leap aruond inside them, following clues, links, hints, and your own interests. They're often visually quite stunning, and often in ways that interest me more than the products and concerns of the contempo art world. You might interact with them not just in one sitdown, "I'm here to appreciate this" session, but over many sessions of many different lengths -- they can get folded into your life experience in fascinating ways. (The cookbook that's full of stains and flour dust, for example.)

Incidentally, since I'm having mischievous fun scoring off the English teachers and profs: one type of book I often enjoy playing with or interacting with but seldom read straight through is the scholarly book, the academic's book. There's often interesting info in there, and often some useful info. But talk about bad writing! Worse than popular novels by a longshot. But an hour or two with the index, thumbing through, following up on footnotes, chcking out who the sources are and what the general thesis is? Academics, dull writers though 99% of them are, do seem to announce and then repeat their main points on a regular basis, which is convenient. I find I can get a lot out of such a book without ever reading all the way through, and I may well spend an enjoyable hour or two with such a book.

I dunno, I'd guess that over half my interacting-with-books life consists of nosing around, thumbing around, checking things out, setting them aside and moving on to other books. Heck, I'd guess it's more than half. I spend some time reading through books (some "real books," some not) too. But I marvel that we don't take more note of how various (and rich and wonderful) our interactions with books are...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2004 11:48 AM

Two words. Fan Fiction.

Posted by: Ivy on January 12, 2004 12:08 PM

I think the issue isn't so much trash books vs. classics but quirky personal choices vs. relatively safe choices that everyone's heard of. I like people who have a thrift-store mentality about books--the kind of readers who follow their taste wherever it leads but who may not have heard of the latest NY Times Notable. We need more readers of books who are like this: how many readers of The Corrections have read anything in translation, a non-hip comic book (like a Jim Lee superhero comic, for example), contemporary poetry, or something written more than 200 years ago? (Even if these things are bad, it¡¯s important to read because they explain why the greats are great: I didn¡¯t ¡°get¡± Shakespeare until I¡¯d gone and read lots of post-war American poetry.) Comic book readers know what I mean?because a lot of great comics aren¡¯t collected, you have to be assertive in your tastes and hunt out back issue bins and go to conventions. A lot of book readers, however, have been socialized into being passive book consumers (probably because of class room syllabi) and eagerly await the New York Review to arrive like a series of cultural homework assignments.

I think the problem between the movie vs. book audience isn¡¯t so much that book people are more humorless, etc.; the problem¡¯s that books seem more relevant to our identity (William Empson said something about how writing is much closer to the way we think) but most people don¡¯t end up having very individualized literary preferences. This is not true for film (maybe because we end up seeing more movies than books); even the regular film goer often has very specific favorite movies and a kind of audience loyalty (i.e. seeing every movie with Tom Cruise, etc.) that only the rarest book people have. This (the book problem) is spiritually dangerous but also artistically dangerous: I think it¡¯s much harder for book people to cope with innovation than film people?hence, Dickinson in her attic, Moby Dick closeted for years, etc.

Why is this? I think first it¡¯s normative: our culture tends to promote this distinction between high and low. I told a friend the other day that _Pirates of the Caribbean_ was one of the smartest movies I saw this year and reminded me of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde; I quoted a scene and asked what the difference was and he said ¡°Well Oscar Wilde is high culture and Pirates is a Hollywood movie.¡± Note: this is not an artistic difference. So it¡¯s hard for people to escape our pre-provided categories. Also, books end up attracting an audience that reads mainly to get cultural brownie points?they go to books specifically because they seem like the ¡°right¡± answer. (And what would our literary world be like if people had the same honesty and skepticism about books as they did about movies?or if no one read books merely because they thought they ought to in order to be a responsible smart citizen?) Pauline Kael has an essay (her review of Truffaut¡¯s Fahrenheit 451) where she talks about a booklover shocked at finding Kael using a cheap paperback mystery as fireplace kindling; Kael was shocked at her friend¡¯s blind worship of books in all forms. Movies liberate us from ¡°taste¡±; everyone watches them?they¡¯re the casual easygoing social currency of our culture.

Second, it¡¯s a lot harder to get ¡°further¡± into your aesthetic with books because each step (an individual book) takes a lot more time than with movies. Thirdly, book people tend to be way more literal thinkers than film people (I think because reading books is correlated with so-called ¡°smart¡± people); this makes it hard for even very sophisticated readers to see the intuitive greatness in work that may seem gaudily crappy. See most English critics on American free verse; conservative critics on multicultural writing or pop culture.

I think the biggest problem with this is that most book people have de-linked reading with pleasure and re-linked with responsibility. Movies make no such claim towards greatness or truth (whether personal or metaphysical) and so people are more willing to pick favorite movies that are fun. I showed a friend of mine a comic by Manara (who, incidentally, did comics for Fellini) and he seemed almost offended! It¡¯s hard to make mere pleasure the ground for books if you have made them your secular religion.

Some of my tastes: I¡¯ve been pretty long-winded so far, so maybe I¡¯ll just say that I think movie reviews?capsule movie reviews?are the greatest literary form of all time. They combine the analysis of literary criticism with the need for accurate description of fiction and the act of sitting through an object and thinking about it that I associate with philosophy. Capsule movie reviews (more in alt. weeklies, like the SF Bay Guardian, the LA Weekly, and the Village Voice, rather than the often insipid New Yorker) are even better: they¡¯re like the pop culture critical equivalent of poetry?the maximum points in 100 words!

Posted by: Ken Chen on January 12, 2004 12:25 PM

I realize that your distinction is between movie people and book people (that is, people somehow involved in those fields), but this same distinction can often reside in the same person, as Graham Finnie aptly points out (above). The time factor is certainly key to understanding this distinction also. It certainly is for me. I am a movie omnivore, but when it comes to reading, I typically go for the good healthy brain food. Although, I recently read, "Utopia," a techno-thriller by Lincoln Child. It is NOT GOOD even by trash standards, but I did rip through it nonetheless. I felt cheated, but entertained. My wife promised to guide me toward the good trash books.

Now, my wife is an interesting case. She is a poet and Ph.D. student in English. She reads voraciously and at least half of it is genre "trash": romance, crime, thrillers. The other half tends to be poetry and literary novels, or stuff for school. She loves reading and easily becomes immersed, so that I can be speaking right to her and she doesn't hear a damn thing. When it comes to movies though, I have to twist her arm if it isn't a romantic comedy. She wants fluff and candy. Movies are for escape, while books can serve many purposes. It is telling, however, that she hides the junk books in the closet, lest one of her classmates catches sight of her stash. The smart books are out in the open.

Finnie also makes a good point when he says that most people have the movie-literacy to appreciate a variety of films, while the same is not true when it comes to books. This might also explain why book reviewers tend to focus only on literary books -- it signifies their place in the cultural elite. It is a form of distinction to be able to appreciate the rarefied pleasures of a high-brow novel. Of course, I think it could be argued that at any level of depth, the average film viewer's level of literacy isn't much better. There are surface pleasures, and there are less obvious treats that are there for those who can see them, that is, people with the specific cultural capital. For example, tons of people enjoyed the "Scream" slasher movies (at least the first two), but far fewer took notice of the intertextuality and parody that was densely woven into the films.


Posted by: Mark on January 12, 2004 12:34 PM

I agree with Ken Chen that movie reviews are pretty great.

I wonder if there are a lot of book re-readers out there. I find very few books that I am willing to sit through for a second or third reading.

One I might consider re-reading is Anne Rice's Feast of All Saints. This has one of the most satisfying scenes in any fiction I have read. Anyone who has read this might guess which one it is!

Rice has only a few historical novels and this one is a must read if you like historical novels.

Posted by: Kitty W. on January 12, 2004 01:20 PM

I reread books all the time, but almost never reread a "classic". I go back and read books from my childhood as a form of escape. For the length of that book I escape fom reality and responsibilites and can recapture the freedom that I had as a child.

Posted by: carrie on January 12, 2004 01:31 PM

I typically prefer rereading books I've previously enjoyed to reading new books. I often like the book better the second time through because you pick up so much more, particularly if your life has changed since you last read it because you come to it with a completely different perspective. There are books like The Brothers Karamazov that you could reread every few years and always gain some fresh insight from.

I also wanted to know what people think about comparing self-help books and almanacs to fiction, literary or otherwise. Granted, Moby Dick and Chicken Soup for the Soul are both books, but aren't they inherently different despite sharing that format? Isn't one art and one a service book in the same way that a marble sculpture of David and a marble toilet are two different things? Can the two really be compared here?

I also wanted to emphasize that I don't think literary fiction is as bloodless as people are saying. Kurt Vonnegut is funny and plays with genre a lot like filmmakers do. If you want some more current examples, Salman Rushdie and DBC Pierre are also enjoyable reads (I actually haven't read Pierre, but I've heard enough to believe this), Martin Amis, Chuck Palahniuk (who wrote Fight Club), and the list goes on. I think part of the problem is that people's attention spans are constantly decreasing. Books are a slow, quiet, solitary pleasure and most people don't enjoy this anymore. Incidentally, movies can be the same way. Go watch Bergman's Cries and Whispers by yourself and tell me you really had a good time. I think what it comes down to is that movies, particularly pop movies, are just easy. They require little commitment and even less thought (though a good pop movie can still be studied if the viewer decides to do so) the way that Danielle Steele doesn't require all that much thought. As to why serious book people deride commercial fiction, I think that's mostly a question of status and they need to pull their heads out of their asses.

Posted by: Marc on January 12, 2004 02:24 PM

I'm starting to think that the book people you know and the book people I know are completely different kinds of book people.

The book people I know love all sorts of books, from David Eddings and Tom Clancy to James Joyce and William Faulkner. I find, though, that as much as I *love* Eddings and company, they are never as satisfying as Calvino, or Borges (and I'm going to have to disagree with you about Ulysses, although the first time I read it I thought it was crap; I had to approach it with new eyes, and more than a few times, to really appreciate it for the comic masterpiece that it is). I can whisk through a Stephen King book in an afternoon, and I'm satisfied for an afternoon, and then I move on to something else. It takes me three or for days to read something by Nabokov, but I'm still thinking about it two years later. It's not so much that one is pleasurable and the other is not; it's simply a matter of degree, and I find that those degrees get farther and farther apart the older I get and the more I read.

But one thing I find is that the book people I know are more than just book people; they're also movie people, art people, music people, food people, and so on, whereas the movie people I know are just movie people. I've worked on a couple of literary journals, and with a few publishers; I've met quite a few people in the Canadian book industry, and almost all of them love books and literature, but they love other things as well. I guess the "trash" parts of their personality tend towards other things.

And then I've met a few people in the Canadian film industry (grew up with some of them), and with one or two exceptions, I find they are *only* movie people. They don't love books, or food, or art, or whatever alongside movies; they just love movies. And I think that contributes to their capacity to love all aspects of their art/industry with equal gusto.

Book people aren't always as ecclectic in the kinds of books they love, but they seem to be more ecclectic in the kinds of things *other than books* they love.

Posted by: August on January 12, 2004 02:25 PM

I love the Laurell K. Hamilton books about Anita Blake, vampire hunter. These books combine many of the most delectable "trashy" elements: mystery, vampires, werewolves, sex. A delightful escapist pleasure.

I also love memoirs, especially travel memoirs.

My favorite personal essay collection is "Waiting for My Cats to Die" by Stacy Horn. Laugh-out-loud funny.

One of my favorite reading activities of all time is surfing the web and finding recommendations and articles and blogs by passionate book people who rave about what they love and rant about what they hate. I also love the internet groups I read daily - 4 Mystery Addicts on Yahoo Groups and the Dorothy L listserv group.

My favorite magazine is Bookmarks, which summarizes major reviews for books. They have a great format and lots of great features. (Well, really it's my second favorite. Entertainment Weekly is my absolute favorite.)

Posted by: Alice on January 12, 2004 03:03 PM

My wife's an elementary and middle school librarian. At the beginning of the school term, she scheduled RL Stein to read as part of the New York Is Book Country festival. A few parents and teachers were disgusted. Stein is considered anti-intellectual; his books are worthless and having him read would be sending the wrong message about 'literature.'

The result? When Stein came to read it was as if Elvis had entered the building. Kids flocked around the library to get a look at the guy.

You can get kids -- particularly boys, who are notoriously bad about reading for pleasure in junior high school and beyond -- to read if you entertain them.

Posted by: Brian on January 12, 2004 03:31 PM

In your description of book people, you forgot all the people who work on and publish those 90% of books that don't make the New York Times Book Review--and there are a lot of us. I work at a commercial publishing house, and we avidly seek the sorts of books that will appeal, Tarantino-like, to both audiences (like Anne Patchett's Bel Canto or Donna Tartt's The Secret History). Failing that, we intentionally publish for a mass audience. We generally aren't ashamed of our pulp tastes or the books we publish. In fact, most of us consider fun one of the most important ingredients for a good reading experience.

And, though I may have entered the book world "hoping to find a quiet refuge from the stresses of business, ambition, and competition," I was certainly expecting chores (and found them in abundance). And I would never seek a haven from sex.

Posted by: Kim on January 12, 2004 03:45 PM

I have a house littered with books and all things print from newpapers to magazines to comic books to dictionaries to math texts and yet I only really consider the linear text narrative types as "reading" books. You make an interesting point, Michael, especially since when I had little people in the house and was encouraging literacy and words and reading, I didnt limit the experience to just books. I included books but to teach a love of reading you have to start with words and language. People who browse other forms of books are probably word lovers first and book lovers second. Just a thought.

I reread books all the time. My husband asked me early on how I could possibly sit thru them again and again and I pointed out that he can listen to the same CD over and over so what's so different about a book. Like, duh! And how about those folks who see movies more than once? I have a few books that are so familiar I only reread favorite scenes or passages--Austen, Dickens and Sarah Orne Jewett are examples. So is Tolkein. They are like friends I go to visit and spend a little time with.

Posted by: Deb on January 12, 2004 04:37 PM

The only thing worse than snobbery is reverse snobbery: middle-brows trying to convince us of how "earthy, worldly and pleasure-centric" they are by making a few clumsy, timid and obviously patronizing gestures in the direction of "trash." This kind of self-conscious hip-mongering slumming has been endemic in academia for about two decades now, and it is blatantly unconvincing to real trash mavens like myself. There are discriminations to be made,you see, even in the flea-pits. For example: among comic-book artists, Milo Manara is hardly to be ranked a genius of the calibre of, say, Hergé, Jacques Tardi or Yves Chaland. And why do you think you're being so daringly latitudinarian by saying so, when comic books have been accepted as good literature by the Europeans for decades?

Graham Finnie is right: bad movies can be enjoyed in a way inept books can not, because they require much less investment of time and effort. I find most commercial fiction unreadable not in spite of, but because of how low-aimed it is. If a book is readable and enjoyable, then it qualifies as literature; very little commercial fiction these days can meet even that criterion.

Posted by: Thomas on January 12, 2004 04:53 PM

Books can give what no other media can give, the deepest kind of thought and work of the mind. Books provide knowledge in a way no purely visual media can.
When we think of the best that has been thought and said we do not think too much about the movies.
Books are simply a deeper and higher form for reflecting the whole inner life of the person. Movies entertain and provide us ' other worlds' to escape to .But they can never give us the detailed understanding of life that books can.

Posted by: Shalom Freedman on January 12, 2004 05:04 PM

Actually, movies, simply because of the way they work, might be able to give us more insight into the workings of the mind than books. According to this article - - perception and consciousness work more like a series of stills rather than an undisturbed stream. Ah movies...maybe Tarantino will use the medium to finally reconcile the discrepancy between perception and reality. Maybe Socrates had movies in mind when he imagined shadows and light flickering on the walls of the cave.

Posted by: Marc on January 12, 2004 05:24 PM

Ken -- I think you're making a great point, that too many of us let ourselves be told what's a real book, and what's real reading. A legacy of school, do you think? People seem to feel -- again, generalizing wildly here -- more entitlted to their own reaction when it comes to movies than when it comes to books. I'm a fan of capsule movie reivews myself. It isn't easy to do a good one.

Marc -- Excellent points all, and I'm happy to make distinctions between various kinds of books. But I also tend to find it useful to dwell on the continuities too. For too many people I know, "love of literature" seems to be almost a subcategory of "hating trash." I'd rather see it be a subcategory of "loving books."

Mark, Graham -- Your point that it simply takes more time and effort to read a book than watch a movie is a really good one. That would tend to make people more picky about their reading experiences, and it would be fun to try to take note of how people apportion their culture-time and culture-energy. Probably some people reserve their "serious" time and energy for books, and their "frivolous" time and energy for movies. My suspicion is that you're right on that. I'd add only that in my experience a lot of people spend a lot of time with books that they barely even take note of as "spending time with books" -- cookbooks, comic books, books they flip through rather than read, reference books, books they simply enjoy having around. That's "time with books" every bit as much as doing serious reading is. I find it funny that more people don't take note of that kind of activity. I find that many people are already pluralistic in the way they interact with books already, in a de facto sense -- they spend time (even if casual time) with lots of different kinds of books. But if you ask them what they've been reading recently, they'll hem and haw and finally come up with the last novel they plowed all the way through. I guess I wish people were a litlte more open and honest about how they enjoy books, and how they spend time with them. But maybe that's just me.

Kitty, Carrie -- Re-reading is another great subcategory of "spending time with books," thanks, as well as its own semi-distinct (and underappreciated) form of taking pleasure.

August -- Well, like I say, I was deliberately holding back from discussing the downside of the movie-person view of things. Don't know the Canadian scene, but it sounds similar to the American -- too many movie people are all about movies and nothing else. One of the things that always struck me about American books people is that they're often quite broad-minded and open as people, both in their reading and their cultural pleasures generally. Yet the general book-world gestalt is still a rather high-minded one -- all this exists so that one or two great works might exist. (And I'm trying, if perhaps failing, to discuss the gestalt, not the individuals.) The general discussion about books isn't nearly as rowdy or open as the general discussion about movies, and in my experience if you were to talk enthusiastically at a book-world party about enjoying a quote book and how perhaps you found it a better book than the latest collection of praised short stories, or how radical you thought a certain kids' book was and thought it was artistically more radical than such-and-such a praised poet, you'd get funny looks. (Where saying such a thing among moviefolks is pretty commonplace.) Why? As far as I can tell, because the books world still assumes that the real action is still in "serious" books. Many of which are promptly forgotten, by the way.

Alice, Brian -- I'm with you, getting a big kick out of the way the Web is sort of eating away at the edges of what it means to be a book. The Web delivers reading and writing in spades, plus many other attractions -- interactivity, sounds, movement, update-ability. And RL Stine's a great example. Librarians notoriously complain that little boys don't read -- yet when little boys showed that they loved reading RL Stine, the librarians scolded them and tried to keep the Stine books from them. I once hung out with Stine for a day at the height of his popularity and you're right -- as far as kids go, it was like walking around with a rock star.

Kim -- I don't seem to have succeeded, but I was hoping to discuss the general bookworld gestalt rather than anyone individually. Like you, I've known lots of bookworld people who are pretty funky and open-minded. I've known a lot of others though whose openness to book pleasure is prettty grudging. I wonder why their attitude so colors the bookworld, and the bookchat world. Any ideas?

Deb -- Such a good point that it's all reading, really. And a further question: when does something on the page become a book? Is a comicbook not a book, where a graphic novel is? When does one become the other? At 25 pages? 50? And does it matter?

Thomas -- So, by your own account, you're a firstclass snobbish lowbrow? Hey, you're welcome to the title.

Shalom -- Even if you're right, how about the other 99% of books that get made? They're an interesting part of the bookworld in their own right, and many people's booklives include some time with them, even some "fun" or "pleasurable" or "useful" time. Why not accord that a little attention and respect too?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2004 05:32 PM

2 authors to comment on: Tolkein and Eggers. Tolkein is the ultimate trash writer in some esteemed opinions, yet others decry what Peter Jackson "did to" the books in making the films so action-adventure focused. So which is it? His novels are scholarly pulp, so it can go either way. Dave Eggers, I think, is as close as anyone has come to being a Tarantino-style writer. Lots of trashy pop culture references, presented with no apologies, but in a style & structure that the critics and "book people" love. (That's true of "Staggering Genius" at least, if not "Velocity".)

Posted by: Neil on January 12, 2004 06:02 PM

I posted my thoughts on my own blog, here. This was a great post, even by the standards here!

Posted by: Jaquandor on January 12, 2004 08:39 PM

Living, like I do, in the ultimate low-brow city, Las Vegas, I nonetheless would consider myself a book person, having worked in NYC publishing before moving here.

I admit that I've read very little genre fiction or whatever you want to call it. But not really for snobbish reasons, I've tried, I really have, but more often than not I find such books unintentionally funny, when the author threatens to trip over his own sentences.

To me, the real pleasure in reading is a pleasure of language, which is probably why I read a great deal of poetry. Contrary to popular belief, there are a number of fabulous living or recently deceased poets whose work seems to bring the kind of pleasure many who posted here are looking for. Why are they not buying that stuff? And they aren't since contemporary poetry sells about 500 copies on a very, very good day.

To plug just a few: Fred Chappell (also a fine fiction writer), Kelly Cherry, James Merrill (who died too young), Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Michael Hartnett and Tony Hoagland.

The pleasure of a well-written sentence/stanza far outweighs any need for literature to represent reality as I see it. The most fabulous fiction writer of the last couple of decades was W.G. Sebald, whose books, difficult though they may be, I challenge anyone to put down unfinished? I once found myself re-reading "The Rings of Saturn" three times before moving on to the next book, all within a few days.

The genre fiction I've tried to read has just not had that kind of pleasurable effect on me. My last attempt was "The Da Vinci Code," surely a popular book by anyone's standard, and I found myself laughing so hardily at the awkward prose and repetitive cliches (not to mention inept descriptions) that I could not follow the story for very long. I eventually gave up on the thing about 200 pages in.

Posted by: Ulf on January 12, 2004 09:18 PM

First: Coolest. Comments Thread. Ever.

Phillip Pullman was just given a CBE by the Queen, wasn't he? I'd argue that he's probably a nice bridge between Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings (okay, if you can ignore the religious differences). Another fun YA author--Tamora Pierce. Swordfighting, true love, sorcery, AND female empowerment, all presented in one easy-to-swollow package. Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde both kick serious ass--it's cool that the Brits aren't as concerned with the divide between highbrow lit and lowbrow lit. I freely admit to a guilty joy in Andrew M. Greeley books (White Smoke is actually very good in discussing papal politics, plus who knew a priest could write love scenes like that?)

I used to really enjoy fan fiction, but it seems that either the writers have gotten sloppier in editing or my tastes have evolved. Or maybe as more kids get access to computers they start writing fanfiction without spellchecking it before posting.

Posted by: Maureen on January 12, 2004 09:20 PM

There's nothing finer than plowing headlong through an Edgar Rice Bouroughs novel. I love the Warlord of Mars Books for their adventure, barely stifled sexuality and old fangled, pre-space age notions of science and science fictionality. Sure, Burroughs was a racist and a little too enamored with the eugenics movement but he wrote some finely plotted stories.

Posted by: Keith on January 12, 2004 09:47 PM

My daughter loves Tamora Pierce novels. She has them all except the newly published one still out only in hardback. If you like her stuff, try Robin McKinley--"The Blue Sword" and "The Hero and the Crown." Very similiar thematic content. Her fractured fairy tales are a gas too. "Spindle's End" is funny and perfect for the same crowd that likes Pierce.

Posted by: Deb on January 12, 2004 09:57 PM

"There are no guilty pleasures-only people who think some forms of art ought to know their place, and those who believe them"-That's from some Slate writer whose name I forget. I think it's a good thing to remember, especially when deciding between Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Fifth Wheel. As far as literary guilty pleasures go, I love The Onion, too, and get a big kick out of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Posted by: Will Sommer on January 12, 2004 11:16 PM

I *do* work in a bookstore, consider myself a "book person," and read whatever takes my fancy. Can't say that I care much for romances, but I love Clive Cussler and the Preston/Childs novels (especially the ones with Agent Pendergast), and just about anything in science fiction. Then again, I think A.S. Byatt is outstanding, and have reread Chaucer multiple times. Most "post-modernists" are insufferable, to my mind. In my experience, those of my colleagues who look down their noses at any particular genre, who "never read popular fiction," don't last long in this business.

Posted by: KR on January 12, 2004 11:26 PM

Good provocative essay, Michael, and thanks for the link to the Wash. Post King vs. Hazzard article, to which I confess I had a violent reaction:

Opening passages from Straub and Hazzard were compared, the implication being that Straub was servicable whereas Hazzard was Art. However, the impression I carried away was of being given a choice between bad writing and bad, pretentious writing.

I have a good friend who exemplifies the literati mentality, which is in fact a herd mentality. These people don't seem to be able to recognise bad writing! But they boost their ego by eating their vegetables, and congratulate themselves on their rare sensitivity.

I confess I am a partisan for William Burroughs. His best stuff is terrific fun AND well-written. (No, Naked Lunch was certainly NOT his best book. His best are from 1968-1988, plus Junky.)

Speaking of trash, I'm also a fan of Philip K Dick (now semi-respectable), Raymond Chandler (ditto), Quentin Crisp (still too queer), & PJ O'Rourke (before he started banging the Republican drum).

If I had the time I'd also make a case for the artistic potential of video games - there's some good, unpretentious criticism out there, which will of course disappear once the cultural "elite" get ahold of it.

P.S. How did "literary" come to mean pretentious and obscure, when it once simply meant "of writing"?

P.P.S. Has anyone else discovered "The devil in velvet" by John Dickson Carr?

Posted by: Anon, unfortunately on January 12, 2004 11:56 PM

I love anything gossipy about Watergate, old cookbooks ( with the kind of recipes that call for jello, mayonnaise, fritos, etc.,), very old magazines of all kinds, biographies with lots of pictures, mysteries heavy on plot (instead of charactarization). On the web, my latest thing is cruise-ship websites.

Posted by: dszy on January 13, 2004 01:27 AM

I happen to enjoy reading the New York Review, Proust, and Faulkner -- so I guess that puts me in the books category. Not that I don't also enjoy lighter fare like campy films,, and fun short fiction. But there's something deeply satisfying about rich, finely crafted prose that the cheap shit can't replicate. Trashy novelas may offer ephemeral pleasures. Great novels stay with you. I find lines from Baldwin or even Kirk Vardenoe coming back to me at random points in the day. They speak to something beyond the immediate circumstances of their construction, they achieve something higher and purer. In short, they offer the reader wisdom, not just pleasure.

I absolutely agree that postmodern literary crit is pontifical dreck. And self-consciously "literary" fiction is unbearable. But the best stuff in life requires effort. And I've found the most satisfying fiction is indeed multi-layered and difficult and, yes, literary.

Posted by: Jason on January 13, 2004 01:43 AM

Dickens, Palahniuk, Calvin&Hobbes, Nietzche, anything transgressional or claims to be so - gets my vote.

Posted by: Arun on January 13, 2004 08:55 AM

Wow! Finally someone hits the nail on the head! The posts above are some of the most interesting musings regarding books I've seen in a long, long time. Still beaming from being reminded of the glory that is The Book of Lists. A couple of points though...

There is an inherent difference between the two forms in the sense that book making or book reading is essentially a solitary activity which maybe makes people a little shyer about confessing to 'guilty pleasures' and so on. After all, it's a genuinely solitary guilty pleasure rather than a communal one. Film is basically about people, you watch it with other people (in a cinema), it's a collaborative process in terms of production etc. Books, I think, naturally tend more towards an introspective point of view; a kind of crazed loneliness point of view that often manifests itself as extreme paranoia/cultural grandstanding/haughty dismissal.

Having said that it's great to see a bunch of obviously engaged people responding to the article with lists of their own personal fancies. Some classic stuff up above...Dr. Sueuss, Philip K. Dick...and the original comment about giving an alien a copy of The Onion is bang on. 'World's largest metaphor hits iceberg' was my particular favourite. Anyway, for the record, my own personal guilty pleasures would be P.G. Wodehouse, Stephen Donaldson, Dilbert (some day in the future they're going to read Dilbert and look back at us with absolute pity), Dave Sedaris, How To Get Rich Without Really Trying books, archy and mehitabel, ant and bee, trashy serial killer books...oh yeah, and as for George Steiner...he ain't listening. Would it kill him to put in some translations of the Greek in his books? sheesh...

Posted by: Andrew Delany on January 13, 2004 09:10 AM

I went through a month-long phase this summer where I couldn't stand to read anything but Stephen King books. I just got hooked on his authorial voice and nothing else would do.

In terms of guilty pleasures-- that is, books I actually experience guilt for reading, unlike King-- I was appalled by how much I enjoyed the ultra-sexist first "World of Gor" novel by John Norman. It's a swords'n'sorcery book set in a world where men are macho and women are sex slaves. Waaaaay over the top, like the worst of Heinlein, Howard, & a little Piers Anthony to boot, written in an overblown "epic" stylee. Awful, awful fun. I swear I'm not a misogynist!

Undermining that assertion, I also guiltily dig the hell out of Mickey Spillane. Mike Hammer, Invincible Private Eye, beating down and blowing away longhair commie beatniks left and right, defending blondes from "negro bucks" (at least in earlier editions!) and slapping around his women when they get out of line. Reprehensible, but it scratches an itch, and Spillane is a capable wordsmith from an era when hard-boiled was HARD-BOILED. Best enjoyed with a fat joint of "demon reefer" to get you in the right mindset, you filthy commie hophead.

If you're looking for contempo trash, may I steer you towards the "Rig Warrior" series? In this timeless trilogy (_Rig Warrior_, _Wheels of Death_, _18 Wheeled Avenger_), a renegade trucker convoys around the country in his custom Peterbilt, shooting people in the cause of justice and stuff. Badly written, with a lot of loving, borderline-pornographic descriptions of trucks and a second installment that is notable for almost entirely eliding both the protagonist and his truck. By William W. Johnstone, an old-school ultra-prolific hack & nigh a genre unto himself.

Posted by: Damien on January 13, 2004 02:49 PM

if you like "thin existential French novellas about women, despair, sex and suicide." you may want to seek out Carole Maso--though she is American. She is America's M. Duras. Very hypnotic...

Posted by: laura on January 13, 2004 03:21 PM

I totally agree and I always try to mix "serious" lit and nonfiction with sci-fi, fantasy but am picky.


The message you should be promoting is: if you only read romance novels, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" novels or any other mainstream bestseller disposable books, occasionally pick up a classic or literay work.

That's the problem with the US and book publishing. How about a list of "If you like books, try book"?

Please do not criticize me for snobbery, like I said, I try to read non-elite books. And I even read comic books!
Too many

Posted by: cheney_usa on January 13, 2004 05:03 PM

I love crime/thriller writers Jeffrey Deaver, Lee Childs, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs et al, with their punchy pace, dynamism, red herrings and cheap thrills. Sometimes I get an almost physical craving for a Deaver thriller, like the post-hangover craving for KFC which won’t be assuaged by anything else. I’ll get a book out of the library and devour it over the next couple of days, reading in bed until 4 am, unable to put it down.

I must have read every detective story Agatha Christie ever wrote, many of them more than once. I’ll happily plough through chick lit and lad lit in equal measures. Or give me a good spy novel on an aeroplane.

At the same time, the best books I’ve read have been more like a friendship or a sexual relationship than a good greasy meal. There’s a qualitative difference. You come away changed, having learnt, or even experienced, something new about the world and about yourself. The book continues to have significance even years after you read it; it becomes a part of who you are.

Not all of the books that have had this effect on me fall into the narrowly-defined category of ‘literary fiction’. But most genre writing doesn’t come close to engaging on this level. At its best, it is comprised of well-crafted types, tricks and techniques, in the same way as a good pop song is made up of catchy riffs and hooks. The best novels, on the other hand, uncover something unique about human experience, which can be a more tortuous process both for writer and reader.

This is such a strange and special thing that people want to exalt it. Some of the snobbery and preciousness about books, I believe, comes from people not trusting their own judgement about what to exalt. Let’s be fair – snobbery and preciousness are also not unknown amongst movie aficionados. Yet there does seem to be less mutual admiration and cross-fertilization between ‘art’ and ‘trash’ in the lit-world than with movies. Why is that?

Maybe the difference with movies is: they’re inherently a collective endeavour, mixed up with technology, personalities and commerce. They’re comprised of a whole range of components: cinematography, acting, editing, sets, costumes, music, and so on. Many different things about movies can be good or innovative. Theme, plot and character are far from the only things going on. It’s hardly surprising, then, that there’s a sense of solidarity between movies, that they inspire and cross-fertilize one another, from obscure art house to blockbuster trash.

With writing, however, all there is is words on a page. Once you’ve established that a book is formulaic and predictable there’s just not all that much more to take away, even when you’ve got a good satisfying Zinger Works Burger kick out of it.

Footnote (and excuse the long post): if you want to compare like with like, it should be novels and novels, not literary novels and all other books. A self-help book is to a novel more or less what an infomercial is to a movie. Why don’t movie people go on about their favourite infomercials?

Posted by: Simon on January 13, 2004 05:10 PM

Regarding McKee and his ilk, there was a corollary in the 1980s: Survival camp. People could, for a substantial fee, get rudimentary (please remember that word) training in basic soldiering. They got rudimentary (there's that word again) training in hand-to-hand combat, knife fighting, weapons maintenance and marksmanship, survival in harsh terrain, and so forth. A veteran Marine had this to say about these camps in Soldier of Fortune magazine: "If you want outstanding combat training, look no further than Camp Lejeune and Parris Island. Anything else is bullshit."

And so it is with McKee, who offers nothing but the rudiments of literature. If anyone wants an education in the "elements of story", also known as creative writing, they will get a far better one at just about any highly-rated university in the country than they ever will from McKee or anyone like him.

Now a few words about literature. When I was a boy in high school I loved Stephen King and Peter Straub and, God help me, V.C. Andrews. This love continued until about my Sophomore year of college (I earned a BA in English Lit./Creative Writing), when I began to notice how utterly boring genre fiction was compared to the likes of Melville, Faulkner and, especially for me, Fitzgerald. Their books were peopled by characters about which I came to care, with stories that filled me with melancholy and joy, anger and despair, passion and longing. All at once the cardboard caricatures that populated the novels of King Et. Al. seemed a caprice, a lazy way to signify various human traits as they sometimes displayed themselves in the contemporary world.

Does this make me better than other folks? Nope; it is my contention that anyone who is both literate and disciplined can read War and Peace or The Sound and the Fury and enjoy them just as much as I do, irrespective of their level of education. That's the thing about great books; they are great precisely because of the effort it takes to enjoy them, and the tremendous reward to be had from that effort. And in the land of Horatio Alger, what's wrong with a little sweat equity in the pursuit of literary edification?

Stephen King can't have it both ways. He can't describe his work as "..plain fiction for plain folks..the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and large fries at McDonalds.." and then demand to be honored by the same association that has honored writers like Saul Bellow. He simply doesn't belong in the same company, anymore than I belong in the same company as Pete Sampras despite a wicked forehand and having won my fair share of bet matches. No, King and the rest must accept that they are not worthy of review by the best critics nor the reading attention of those, like me, who have moved beyond them. That doesn't make me a snob, it just makes me better READ.

Posted by: Rob Anderson on January 13, 2004 07:28 PM

I find Bruce Sterling's books far more insightful than most "Literature". Holy Fire was particularly good. Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko books are quite good also. I must admit that One Hundred Years of Solitude was excellent, but I like irony. I have a different take on it than what my English prof. would consider proper. How pomo of me.

Posted by: eklektos on January 13, 2004 10:57 PM

If we're going to be all-inclusive on the book side (at least for argument's sake), why limit film to "movies"? It seems to be that "movies" are not the opposite of "books" so much as a distinction between "film" and "print."

Where is the love for sitcoms, commercials, reality TV, sports, talk-shows, the weather channel, cooking shows, and a billion other forms of film?

The original distinction between books and movies limits the field to narrative on the film side and not on the print; this, I think, accounts for the disparity we are dicussing here between the movie-person's worldview and that of the book-person. If we account for more than feature length movies, I think the distinction between the two perspectives is less easily discernible.

I would also echo some of the above glancing blows at the distinction between the kind of appreciation one has for Tom Clancy and the kind of appreciation one has for Toni Morrison. "Enjoy" cannot possibly describe my experience with Beloved but I think it does quite sufficiently for Hunt for Red October. This is not to excuse snobbishness, quite the contrary. The snob who cannot distinguish between the relative merits of different genres and forms is no literary gourmand--only yet another enforcer of long-destroyed cultural elitism and intellectual prudery

Posted by: Skip on January 14, 2004 12:26 AM

One other thing. It might be interesting to know that genre fiction really has become an acceptable field of investigation. Many of my graduate school friends have genre writers on their lists for their comprehensive examinations. Some even devote entire exams to science fiction and crime/mystery. They are FASCINATING cultural documents.

Posted by: Skip on January 14, 2004 12:32 AM

Interesting post Michael, but I must own that I agree more with "August" (somewhere up there in the comments) than your good self.

To wit:
"The book people I know love all sorts of books, from David Eddings and Tom Clancy to James Joyce and William Faulkner."

Now, I don't have any friends that like Tom Clancy (although his back of the jacket photos always give me a great deal of pleasure), but I can assure you that, even in the hallowed halls of academia, it's not all "pompous classics" and "experiment for the sake of experiment"... Just take me for instance--I don't write about anything unless I love it (read: enjoy it--even on weekends) + find it worth analyzing: Dashiell Hammett, Dawn Powell, Keats, Hawthorne, George Eliot, Frank O'Hara, Emily Bronte, Lytton Strachey, Dickens, Hemingway, and, of course, Silver Age Marvel Comics...

Also--I can't believe no one (as far as I could see) saw fit to bring up Paul Auster in this connection! If anyone is the "Tarantino" of the book world, it's Auster--but, of course, he's far better, because he's ripping off Hawthorne & Hammett instead of Dolemite. But if you want an example of complusively readable fiction that still manages to deal with the "big themes", you should try Oracle Night--there's even a lot of joking around about filmmaking in there...


Posted by: David Fiore on January 14, 2004 01:06 AM

Great article. Came here from a link off Neil Gaiman's blog. I'm a fan of both films and books, but not actually involved in either industry. Although I am postgrading in librarianship, don't know if that counts. And I gotta say that I can enjoy almost every film I watch, and there have only been one or two books I actively dislike. Even if I don't like the style or whatever the characters or plot will be enough to keep me interested.
The only problem I have is that there are too many books & films out there for me to read/watch, not to mention the list of websites in my favourites, and all the ones I haven't visited yet.

Posted by: Dearbhla on January 14, 2004 08:24 AM

My biggest "guilty" pleasure is turn-of-the-century adventure fiction. I love most things by H. Rider Haggard. I've also found that a lot of other books from the period have delightful covers, good heft and NO literary merit whatsoever.

Posted by: eeedge on January 14, 2004 09:04 AM

I'd like to know if people ultimately think there is a distinction between literary fiction and pop fiction. Is one art but not the other? To be philosophical for a moment, Godard says that art is the "humanization of forms," meaning that art, in proper postmodern fashion, may not tell us what the truth is, but it can tell us how we see the truth. Where does Tom Clancy fall in this continuum? I know this brings up a million issues that we can't answer definitively but that doesn't mean it's not worth debating. Thanks.

Posted by: Marc on January 14, 2004 09:54 AM

If people shouldn't be making the sort of distinctions covered in this entry, why should they make the distinctions this entry itself makes? As far as reading for pleasure goes, read what you like and be damned. If the idea of reading pulp makes you uncomfortable, why force yourself to? There are plenty of non-pulpy books that'll give you the fix you're looking for.

As for myself, I hate Eddings and Jordan and Clancy and Grisham and the whole bleeding lot of them, and I make no bones about it. I don't really care if this is born of snobbishness or not; the effect is the same--reading them is a chore. Therefore I don't. Instead, I read Marquez and Borges and Calvino and Auster, because for whatever reason I *do* enjoy them. Isn't that what reading for pleasure is all about?

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 14, 2004 10:42 AM

Am I really the first to point out that the snobbish distinction between high art and pulp exists even within genres? I had to outgrow my sci-fi geek days by several years before I could read (and love) Neal Stephenson (way too populist for my crowd; we read early William Gibson--though personally I think we just couldn't forgive Stephenson for skewering college gamers so accurately in "The Big U"). And who can forget the debates over the relative merits of Babylon 5 (complex, inter-textual, and that lovely 5-year arc) versus Star Trek (why, anyone can understand it after watching just one episode!)?

Posted by: Kaf on January 14, 2004 01:51 PM

Ah post-modernism! The bane of creativity and intelligent debate in the 20th century.

I come from a background in the visual arts (Yes, I’m a movie person and I work in the “industry”), and during my time in art school I found myself constantly railing against the elitism and insularity of contemporary theoretical thought.

It seems that in the world of “high” literature as well as in the world of “high” art, the dialogue has been frozen in some sort of benighted stasis where fun is equated with sin and accessibility is equated with simplicity. A curiously Puritanical sentiment, no?

I think part of the problem has to do with American misinterpretation of European theory. A while ago Julia Kristeva, in an interview in the Herald-Tribune, disavowed her American Feminist acolytes as having profoundly misread her sentiments and put a much harsher spin on them than she ever intended. In my view not an uncommon problem over here. For Europeans theoretical debate is fun and not to be taken so seriously as we seem to take it.

Let’s also not forget the current of Marxist theory in this century as well. It must be hard for these highbrows to find themselves allied with a failed ethos.

I, for one celebrate trash culture. I’ve always been left cold by the self-conscious posturing and cool irony of contemporary authors. In fact, I find my ability to tolerate ironic detachment becoming weaker and weaker as I get older.

I value genuine (and sometimes crass) sentiment. I want to feel something when I read it. What are we as human beings about in this world if not the base pursuits of love, sex, money/success/power, and revenge? This is what we live after all.

Posted by: Arlan Smith on January 14, 2004 02:04 PM

Books Too Good To Put Down is Marylaine Block's list, compiled to hook reluctant readers on the joys of reading.

Posted by: rebecca blood on January 14, 2004 02:15 PM

Arlan says:

"It seems that in the world of “high” literature as well as in the world of “high” art, the dialogue has been frozen in some sort of benighted stasis where fun is equated with sin and accessibility is equated with simplicity. A curiously Puritanical sentiment, no?"

um, no.

what's "puritanical" about it my friend?


Posted by: David Fiore on January 14, 2004 02:50 PM

I'm an English Lit. major, and I've thoroughly enjoyed just about every book read for class. Melville was the only real exception. In eighth grade, I had my first sexually stimulating experience, and it was finishing an unabridged copy of Hugo's Les Miserables. Took me less than a week, I think. I had to hide in my room afterwards for about an hour, and had no idea what was going on until a couple of years later.

However, I certainly won't argue that some of my most enjoyable reading has been "trash." I lovingly refer to Laurell K. Hamilton's books as "trashy vampire romances," and buy them as soon as they hit the stores. I love nothing better than reading one straight through. It's great stress relief, and now they're erotic enough to get some completely prurient enjoyment out of them. I also read V.C. Andrews in middle school, and have a passion for mystery-romances. I always liked Phyllis Whitney, for example. I adore any decently written fantasy, and some that are not written well at all.

Then I had an internship in New York with a publishing corporation for one of their very literary imprints, and found that just about everything they were publishing was boring and pretentious. I really don't think writing should be that self-concious.

Posted by: Alyssa M. on January 14, 2004 03:55 PM

I'm not sure that I understand why film isn't considered a species of literature or a least a mule of literature and photography.

Jonson's contemporaries mocked him for including his plays in his collected works, which seems crazy now. Maybe lumping movies and literature together doesn't make as much as calling plays literature, and it's hard to say how interested Tarantino would be in that Nobel anyway, but should "book people" or anyone actually have to read Tom Clancy and John Irving in order to establish their cred as populists? Can't they just wait for the movie like everyone else. Isn't that more populist?

After all staying up on trashy movies and tv is kind of fun, but trash lit? Life is too short.

Posted by: Gerard Lynn on January 14, 2004 04:05 PM

I'm happy to make the case that some trash lit often has some virtues, and I'm happy to point out that not all trash-lit is trash. I wonder how many people who talk about non-literary fiction writing as "trash" have actually read, say, Ruth Rendell, or George V. Higgins. Pretty impressive (and even pretty highend) stuff, though you may have to let go of a few "literary" assumptions in order to fully appreciate how good these writers are.

That said, and not that anyone has to pay attention, but I'd like to point out that books come in all different flavors, sizes and kinds. "All-text books written in order to be read straight through" is a very, very slim subsubcategory of the books world, even of the trade books world. I marvel a bit that so many people fixate on this tiny subcategory of books; I marvel especially at the way some people even consider them the only "real books."

What I do argue is that there's a lot of energy, talent and brains on display in many other kinds of books. Cookbooks these days are often brilliant, for instance, and the new half-visual/half-text reference books are quite amazing. (IMHO, of course.) Perhaps those English-major types (I was one once, as were many bookworld pros who've sinced learned better) who only want to talk about greatness, or the latest lit novel, would do well to open their eyes to the many book-making achievements that we're surrounded by everyday.

My larger case is that too many bookspeople find the larger world of making books (ie., publishing, working on non-"real" books, etc) a pain, something that gets in the way of communing with "real books." Very few moviepeople would claim that the making of movies (movie history, money, stardom, technology, etc) is a pain; for most of them, it's all part of grooving on movies. I'd love to see more bookpeople find the whole panorama of books similarly cool. Publishing history, the process of designing and selling ... For one thing, literature, whatever exactly it may be, is an offshoot of the process of "making books," not the cause or the justification of it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 14, 2004 04:40 PM

A great thread. I think there are three main weaknesses with the movie-book comparison, all mentioned before, which I'll highlight here:

1. Books are solo, movies are (usually) shared. I very rarely see movies by myself, and find I enjoy almost any movie much more with a companion. If it's good, we'll discuss what we loved. If it's bad, we'll have a blast ripping into it. This is true for arthouse movies as well as summer blockbusters. A caveat: sharing a book (whether reading aloud, or simultaneously) is also a lot of fun. Just less common.

2. Books are long, movies are short. I generally manage to see most of the movies I want to each year, as it's usually only about a dozen or two (though not evenly distributed throughout the year). That's roughly 30 hours, which would get me through only a few good books (say, 60 pages an hour). It's a greater commitment to read a book, so one must be more discerning. This can apply in reverse: I'm more likely to read something light and fun if it's short than to attempt some 800-page magnum opus just because the NY Times liked it. This is what kept me out of Robert Jordan, for instance. His fantasy novels, while entertaining, aren't good enough to take roughly 7000+ pages of my time. But George R.R. Martin, OTOH, is well worth it.

3. The comparison of *all* books with movies is false. Trashy books, trashy movies, sure. But reference, self-help, and the like are in a different category. They typically aren't read for enjoyment, or in the same style as 'normal' books. We should logically limit this to all books with directed narrative flow, meant as entertainment.
Otherwise, as someone else mentioned, we need to include infomercials, training videos, and all manner of TV shows.
Not that I'm against discussing the merits of non-novelistic books in a slightly separate thread.

I admit that I haven't been reading much 'literature' lately, but did a lot in high school. Lately, I've had more than a few 'guilty' pleasures:

-comic books. Typically, graphic novels, comic collections, and anime/manga. Great titles include: Sandman, Maison Ikkoku, Lucifer, Powers, Transmetropolitan, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Usagi Yojimbo, Tintin.
-video games. I'm not arguing these as a literary alternative, but some of them do have great story and artistic merit. For example, Ico, Thief, Deus Ex, Planescape:Torment, the Ultima series, Half-life.
-fan fiction. No longer, but there was a time when some pretty solid stuff was being produced, particularly for Ranma 1/2. Nowadays, as noted above, it's all cliches and spelling errors. Curious. This is an interesting genre, though. Taking familiar characters into original stories, sometimes amazingly well done (though, like nearly all fields, it's about 95% tripe)
-fantasy. I can't claim to have read much here, but can always revisit Tolkien. George Martin is without peer, Pullman's not bad, and Neil Gaiman is, as always, masterful in everything he does. And, of course, I'm guilty of the usual Harry Potter addiction.

For comparison purposes, favorite 'real' authors include Faulkner, Marquez, Bowles, Fitzgerald, Woolf, and Dostoyevsky. The only recent literary work I've read is Franzen's 'The Corrections', which I enjoyed (though it's a bit over-the-top).

And I love a lot of movies, from LOTR and X-men through 'American Splendor' and 'Lost in Translation' to 'Bad Santa' and 'Kill Bill'. As long as it's done with energy and originality, I'm generally interested.

Posted by: Emil Aalto on January 14, 2004 06:24 PM

"It seems that in the world of “high” literature as well as in the world of “high” art, the dialogue has been frozen in some sort of benighted stasis where fun is equated with sin and accessibility is equated with simplicity. A curiously Puritanical sentiment, no?"

I think you got postmodernism, at least in terms of the literary world, backwards, there. It's postmodern thought that allows popular and trash culture to be taken seriously by academics (and it is; my contemporary lit classes always include things like pornography, science fiction, and graphic novels). It was (misguided) applications of liberal humanist ideals (by people like F.R. Leavis and the wonderful poet, but terrible critic, T.S. Eliot) that made "fun" a "sin". Postmodern theorists like the Tel Quel group (Kristeva, Barthes, etc.) are all about fun. North American academics and critics have adopted the critical standpoints of another culture ("European" intellectual culture almosts exists, but in this case we might as well just say French culture) wholesale without understanding them, and have gone so far beyond the mark it's ridiculous. It's a game to them; it's deadly serious to us.

Posted by: August on January 15, 2004 12:01 AM

Emil: Why is Neil Gaiman in particular and fantasy in general 'guilty pleasure reading' in the first place?

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 15, 2004 01:18 AM

I'd like to chime in here as someone who sees no problem in talking about commercials, sitcoms and so forth as readily as movies. In fact, I'm often the one to pipe up about a commercial that was wonderfully funny, cute, clever or ... all of the above, but totally missed the point of being a commercial because one forgot the product, a state which certain books also fall into.

To the many mentions of Doctor Seuss, there's also his short humorous story-essays and cartoon-pages - I've read "The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs The Dough" dog-eared. I also adore and collect roleplaying game guidebooks (from traditional Dungeons and Dragons to Middle Earth Roleplaying etc) and recently found myself embarrassed to admitting to owning a copy of Mutants and Masterminds - based off super-hero comics. Kid stuff to most - but Lloyd Alexander remains my introduction to twin rabid addictions to fantasy and all things Welsh, so I treasure my "kid stuff." Still, hadn't realized until reading this discussion it wasn't something to hide from those with proper "literary maturity."

One thing I disagree with is the assumption that the classics are automatically "better" and deeper. What moves people and speaks to them is very much an individual thing, or we could simply do away with genres, categories and sorting all together and sell a book-desiring soul any random volume. (Perhaps this might not be a bad idea for some people anyway, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.) Almost certainly it's true that more random trash is being written today, but that doesn't mean that a novel written five years ago is automatically tripe next to Shakespeare (who I happen to enjoy greatly).

Posted by: Lindsey on January 15, 2004 02:28 AM

I found my way here from Bookslut. Great topic, thanks!

Marc said: "Maybe Socrates had movies in mind when he imagined shadows and light flickering on the walls of the cave."

I think you meant Plato.

Jason said: "But the best stuff in life requires effort. And I've found the most satisfying fiction is indeed multi-layered and difficult and, yes, literary."

I think serious fiction can be satisfying without being difficult. What about Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees or Marcovaldo; or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude? They're not "difficult," but I imagine the literary establishment would consider those acceptable. They also were as engaging for me as my favorite genre fiction, SciFi. I read them in overnight frenzies of pleasure because the stories were interesting and I cared about the characters; and as well-written as they were, the words were used to craft the story, not prove how well the writer could manipulate a sentence.

Granted there are some writers I read in small doses–say, Raymond Carver–because I don't want to encourage any suicidal impulses that may be lurking in my unconscious, but as a whole, a tale well told is a tale well told. I think I avoid a lot current literary fiction because lately (at least the books I've read excerpts from or flipped through at bookstores), they seem, well, boring. And I think they're boring for me because I really don't care about the characters and the writing often seems so self-conscious and tortuous it's painful to read.

(I just realized that the books that I mentioned that I loved were foreign. Maybe my dislike for contemporary literary fiction is more a dislike of American literary fiction.)

When I was younger, I used to read widely for pleasure in fiction and non-fiction, including history and biography. As I grow older, I find myself slowly shifting to primarily SciFi, with some mysteries thrown in. I love almost anything in SciFi, good or bad, from space operas to cyberpunk to just-plain trash such as the Aliens and Predator movie follow-up series. (I can't wait to see the Alien vs. Predator movie!) I love hard SciFi best, though, particularly Larry Niven, Charles Sheffield, Robert Forward, Greg Bear and Frederick Pohl. I almost never read fantasy, although I love Tolkein, Douglas Adams, Harry Potter, fairy tales, and mythology.

There are a few mystery authors I enjoy, including Tony Hillerman, Jonathan Kellerman, Anne Perry, and Ed McBain. I also love to read about movies and enjoyed You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (which someone else mentioned), reference books (although I don't read them from beginning to end in one sitting), and decorating books and magazines. Finally, I love surfing the net.

Oh, and if I can't get into a book, I'll read the ending. If it's good, I'll go back and pick up where I left off. Knowing the end doesn't seem to spoil my pleasure in a book. Also, if I don't enjoy a book, after a certain point I just stop. I may be the only person who's read half of Gone With the Wind.

Thanks, again, for starting this discussion.

Posted by: Eva on January 15, 2004 09:38 AM

Michael- I have a book person all my life. And I don't want to count the number of books I have chewed, digested, but mostly devoured in my more than six decades on this little blue paradise. At one time in my life I read five books a day, though now I am happy if I do that in a month. That is to say the ninty- nine percent ( It is probably far less ) of books which are less than insightful and interesting in some way(There is no book so bad said Pliny that it does not have something good in it) also have something to give, which I am not sure a less- linguistically intense medium can give. Films are after all mainly about we see , while books are more about what we see in order to hear and think about. And this without my getting into a whole other area in which I think there is nothing real comparable to books, that is the world of religious literature, of the truly sacred.
I may be wrong. I speak only from my own experience. But for me the real world and life of the mind and the whole human being begins with a book, and my guess is for me , will end with a book also .
Happy reading,
Shalom Freedman

Posted by: Shalom Freedman on January 15, 2004 09:48 AM

Eva - Actually, I did mean Socrates. Plato's Republic is essentially Plato writing down Socrates' dialogues. Though the book is Plato's, the idea belongs to Socrates. However, it's been a while since I read the Republic, so I could be wrong.

Posted by: Marc on January 15, 2004 10:07 AM

Have we heard from a single person that defends this idea of literary fiction being better than trash? Everyone who's posted seems to have a good mixed diet, and everyone seems to agree that a well-written book is worth reading. Is there any debate going on here? Does anyone out there have a different opinion, or at least want to play devil's advocate? You will be instantly set upon by a thousand angry posters eagerly waiting to tear into your argument, but can't you just do it for us? It's no fun when everyone agrees.

Posted by: Marc on January 15, 2004 10:29 AM

One more comment before I leave the stage to other voices.
It seems to me that the real distinction being sought here is not between films and books, but rather between 'films theatre , the performance arts' and ' reading and writing. And in this it seems to me that when it comes to learning most subjects, certainly most academic subjects reading and writing is a necessary and far more important ' form' than films, theatre etc. Books are in this sense simply one form which contains written material for reading, literary text.
I know this sounds dull and commonplace, but in this area of ' learning' there simply is no comparison between the importance and the utility of the two different kinds of media.

Posted by: Shalom Freedman on January 15, 2004 11:33 AM

I discovered Anne Rice's vampire books early this past summer and read all of her books over a four month period. God, it was beyond great!! I'm not sure if it was a guilty pleasure or not.


Posted by: Erick R Williams on January 15, 2004 12:25 PM

I really don't think you can refer to any entire genre as trash, even while defending trash. In mystery, for example, I (and at least 700 others on one mailing list I know of) can make a strong argument for classing Dorothy L. Sayers as literature, while I'd label Lilian Braun's "Cat Who..." books as a guilty pleasure. I don't generally read the latter if I'm in the mood to think, but I do enjoy them much more than most movies. Similarly with SF and YA books: seems to me the argument to be made is not (only) that guilty pleasures are worthy of time (though I agree with that too) but that much genre writing is worthy of a lot more respect than it gets from literary types who take themselves seriously. If this year's Newbery Award winner, whatever it is, gathers dust on a shelf while the Harry Potter books are enjoyed in 50 years, which would be the classic? I like what Eva wrote: "serious writing need not be difficult".

Posted by: dichroic on January 15, 2004 01:52 PM

Marc: Plato was ostensibly writing down the dialogues of Socrates, but the later works (including the Republic) are often thought of as being much more Plato than Socrates. A good many scholars seem to believe (and I think they're justified) that Plato used Socrates more and more simply for his name as his writing went on.

Posted by: August on January 15, 2004 08:53 PM

My guilty pleasure in reading: I will read anything! Anything at all. Ha!

Posted by: Felicity on January 16, 2004 01:59 AM

Guilty pleasure that takes up most of my reading time: BLOGS.

Former guilty pleasures: newsgroups on the usenet, especially alt.gossip.celebrities when they were still posting pirated articles from the trash gossip press. Also, once upon a time but no longer. Too many moronic trolls chased away the cranky, foodie essayists.

Guilty pleasures on paper: Vanity Fair magazine. Anything in the Conde Nast group.

THere was a time when I read a string of Dominick Dunne paperbacks. Le Carre. Tony Hillerman. Elizabeth George.

Nowadays I'm married and matronly and I read books on organizing and housekeeping. "Home Comforts" is one I felt guilty about until I discovered that the literary smart set in Manhattan liked it. The author, who lived in Manhattan forever, writes that her smart set Manhattan friends made her feel secretly, guiltily pleasurable for writing it. Until she had a hit on her hands, people sneered at her for her obsession with housekeeping and reading old manuals on the topic.

I've been trying to read "serious" book people literature lately. In my secret diary I've wondered at what I've found. Am I a Philistine after all? Such a relief to see I'm not the only reader who loves to read for pleasure first.

A few summers ago I read nothing but Anthony Trollope, because my MIL had them and I found them addictive. Nobody told me they were unfashionable. Guess I don't hang out with the right sort.

I read Dickens with pleasure and no guilt whatsoever from childhood onward. Who says he's a hack? Does the accuser dare contradict Nabokov, who wrote so beautifully about Bleak House? Bah!

I'm not much of a movie person but it seems that when it comes to books, I behave like one.
Thanks for this thread!

Posted by: Leila on January 16, 2004 03:05 AM

my favourite writer is marcel proust...but i also love genre fiction - esp. washington's george pelecanos, michael connelly, chuck palahunik, elmore leonard, eddie bunker, walter tevis, john le carre etc well as enjoying more trad novelists like richard ford, norman mailer,madison smarrt bell, william wharton,joan didion, irvine welsh and robert stone...

a good writer is just that whether they're involved in genre fiction, comic books, travel, biography (and i recommend so what the new miles davis bio so what) or whatever - proust is among other things one of the great under-rated comic writers of the 20th century...another is kafka imo...pelecanos one of the great moralists in the dostoyevsky vein...village voice columnist and jazz writer gary giddins is a great writer too sentence by sentence, day by day...and as has been noted the film criticism of pauline kael is every bit as impressive as any of the films she critiques...


under-rated = stephen king

over-rated = don de lilo

as a rule in my experience movie people and book people are different breeds...not worse or better just different...

Posted by: art pepper on January 16, 2004 05:33 AM

Terrible,terrible guilty pleasure for me was Peyton Place, this while at college in the late 70's.I read it concurrently with Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma, a required text but in its own mad way a great trashy yarn.I've always imagined the Duchess and Lana Turner as one and the same.

Posted by: charles on January 16, 2004 07:41 AM

"Such a relief to see I'm not the only reader who loves to read for pleasure first."

The problem with that statement is that it assumes that those of us who would rather read "serious" literature (and I'm often, but not always, a member of that group) don't read that "serious" literature for pleasure. We do. We take great pleasure from it; more than we take from genre fiction and so on. That's why we read it.

Posted by: August on January 16, 2004 02:11 PM

Nicholas: I list fantasy as 'guilty' because the 'serious' literature set would probably dismiss it, and all genre fiction, as a waste of time.

Marc: despite my defense of fun reading, I'll take up the devil's advocate challenge. There's a quality that serious lit has that most fun reading lacks. Even good scifi/fantasy I tend to look back on as really solid entertainment, whereas something like Dostoyevsky rises to the level of art. It's a completely different feeling. Typically, this is because 'high' fiction focuses on intense portrayals of the human psyche, whereas 'low' fiction is more concerned with plot and setting (how many scifi novels are really just about a setting?). Obviously, there can be plenty of good character development to be found, but it's rarely in the same level of cathartic detail.

Posted by: Emil Aalto on January 16, 2004 02:33 PM

A very funny send-up of the publishing industry is William Kotzwinkle's "The Bear Went Over the Mountain."

Posted by: mike on January 17, 2004 06:18 PM

God, this thing has grown.:)

I read in part to be entertained, in part to be informed, but mostly to be entertainingly informed. You can hold my attention I'll read you all the way through.

So develop a voice, dammit. Transparency's for window glass.

BTW, the problem I had with Eddings The Belgariad wasn't that it was The Lord of the Rings as written by an American. It was that it was The Lord of the Rings as tediously written by an American.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 18, 2004 03:32 AM

This post is so stupid it actually robbed my brain of knowledge that was already in it before I read the article. I suggest a third category of lazy stereotype: Blog People.
How can any of you support the idea that 'movie people hate mediocrity' when, in fact, they churn mediocre crap out by the bucketful? What extreme does 'Radio' fit? Huh? It ain't good enough to be trash. And it sure as hell ain't legitimately good...

Randy Schaub

Posted by: Randy Schaub on January 19, 2004 11:44 AM

At first I thought I didn't read trashy novels--glad to know I can at least count Trollope. I am willing to in theory, but having tried a few best sellers pressed upon me by acquaintances over the years, I have discovered I would rather lose the friendship, if necessary.

In a non-NY Review of Books vein, my favorites would be the Freddy the Pig series of 26 books written between the 20's and 50's, written by Walter R. Brooks, and now all in print again. I have laughed more, and learned more, from these than from any other author I can think of. Second mention: Calvin & Hobbes. I quit reading the newspaper when this series ended.

I totally agree with the comments about detective fiction. Other than Haruki Murakami, my favorite contemporary writers are Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, John LeCarre, and especially, Ian Rankin.

Have only seen about 10 movies in the last 10 years, but my outlet for "non-highbrow" entertainment comes entirely from hockey, and especially, music. I've been through the classical music phase, but cannot find the time for it now when there is so much good music out there--Radiohead, Placebo, Cure.

Posted by: Roy on January 19, 2004 06:22 PM

August - In reference to your Plato/Socrates post, thanks, I had never heard that.
Everyone - Is it just me or has this thing degenerated into people doing little more than listing books they read?

Posted by: Marc on January 20, 2004 11:12 AM

Good lord! Obviously the worst possible reading habit is to participate in endless blog threads like this one.

"If a creature arrived from Mars and asked for a book that did a good job of conveying what life in the US is like these days..." But wouldn't the creature be too busy yanking tops off to wait for an answer?

I'll be a counter-contrarian here and argue that for every person who has read enough highbrow and lowbrow lit to be entitled to criticize the highbrow stuff, there are at least three readers who wouldn't know good writing if it bit them in the (proverbially proverbial) ass.

The worst book I've given up on in frustration lately is McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, an anthology by a motley assortment of high-, middle- and lowbrow writers to revive plot-driven pulp fiction. Talk about boring! Sometimes pointless action is as tepid as any plotless introspective piece ever could be.

Finally, my own worst reading habit has been to haul around overly ambitious books that I've failed to read through 20+ years and countless moves. Mostly novels in the original German or Spanish, but a few things in English, too. I'm about to release some of these albatrosses into the wild, I was thinking maybe through Bookcrossing but actually I think they'll stand a better chance of avoiding the landfill if I can persuade a good used bookseller to take them on. May they all find good homes.

Posted by: Prentiss Riddle on January 21, 2004 12:03 PM

all printed pages are more or less identical, so we may assume that a specific set of
neurons are engaged in primary processing. this leaves the contents of the book, and
its intrinsic qualities as the chief determiners of whether one find a book interesting
or not. any images formed mentally are, by default, one's own. if one becomes attached
to the images that arise, the book is deemed to be a success.

by their very nature, whether viewed at a theatre or at home, films have a linear
temporal sequence (reversible through the rewind button at home, but rarely used),
one that commands attention. rarely is one tempted to turn a video off if the first
half hour of a movie is abyssmal, because one is 'hooked' through a variety of
sensory inputs to the movie experience. in a theatre, the only option is to walk out,
as even shutting one's eyes still exposes one to the sound component, as well as the
audible reactions of the rest of the audience.

this i think would be the psychological basis for the seemingly indiscriminate
tastes of the movie watcher, as opposed to the fine tuned tastes of a book reader,
should your hypothesis hold water, that is.

Posted by: einv on January 25, 2004 02:42 AM

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