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September 06, 2005

The Way of All Reading?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've wondered out loud about the future of long, all-prose narratives. As the world goes more and more electronic -- and hence multimedia -- what chance do 400-page-long novels stand? That's a lot of words; that's a lot of gray stuff; that's a lot of eyestrain.

Some visitors have found my musings absurd (or maybe depressing), and have written that there will always be a place for books. I certainly hope so; I've always been a big reader myself. Still, we're going through a period of major media transition, and sentiment can make our vision misty. Why not sweep the mist aside and take note of what's actually out there?

A few points:

  • "Books" and "long prose narratives" are not synonymous. Many books contain images and graphics; most books in fact aren't meant to be read straight through. Books in a general sense remain attractive in many ways. They're easy to carry around, they're easy to give and receive, they're easy to flip through. It's hard to imagine people abandoning them.

  • But long prose narratives are a very special sub-sub-category of books. For some reason -- school? -- many people seem deeply convinced that the only books that qualify as "real books" (and hence worthy of serious thought and discussion) are long-prose-narratives. This is a sweet conviction, but it's also a slightly deluded one. I don't have a figure to volunteer, alas, but most books aren't "real books" in that limited sense. Most books are cookbooks, reference books, travel books, professional books, visual books, joke books -- books that are primarily meant to be used, and to be interacted with in short bursts at the user's convenience. Among books more generally, the long-prose-narrative is an oddball category: No images. No graphics. The demand that you start on page one and keep on keepin'-on until you make it to the finish line.

  • Doug Sundseth argues that, while people haven't stopped reading, the nature of their reading is changing. I think Doug's point is a good one. These days, we tend less and less to chomp our way, Pac-Man-style, through endless yards of text. Instead, we tend to take in short chunks of prose. Our brains are largely engaged in sifting and sorting images, graphics, sounds, and moving images. What we turn to prose-chunks for is mostly orientation, narration, and information. Words, once the primary event, now play a supporting role to the central thing, which is the multimedia experience.

  • The charm is already off long-narrative-prose. The young people I see -- many of whom are coming out of the most expensive liberal-arts colleges -- no longer have the same attitudes towards books that many older people do. They're free of the feeling that books are something special -- that there's something sacred about "the book." And they clearly don't feel that it's automatically a good thing to sit quietly and read your way from beginning-to-end, all the way through an all-prose book. As far as many young people are concerned, books are simply one media option among many. And long prose narratives are one of the less attractive options. Not enough color! Too little movement! And too many damn words!

  • If any of the above is true, then a question arises: Why do we discuss books -- even long-prose-narratives -- in terms of whether they qualify as "great" or not? "Great" is usually thought to imply "will last a long time." Yet if the reading of long-prose-narratives is becoming an oddball and specialized taste -- rather like the reading of contemporary poetry -- then it makes little sense to worry about greatness. Let's say that everyone-who-is-everyone decides today that "The Corrections" is a great novel. Let's say further that this judgment holds for several hundred years. Who then will it matter to? The five weirdos who are still involved in long-prose-narratives? Big deal. So why not let go of the "greatness" discussion, and enjoy the world as we've been given it? My version of this is: Be curious; savor what we encounter; compare notes; open up our minds, our senses, our imaginations and our emotions; and let the future take care of itself. BTW, the future is going to take care of itself anyway, no matter how much we will things otherwise ...

Thoughts like these were ricocheting around my brain as I settled into my seat on the subway yesterday. Was there anything to them?

When I arrived in NYC over 25 years ago, people's subway reading habits were a hoot to notice. Typically you'd see a few guys in suits engrossed in the Wall Street Journal, and a number of people catching up with the Times or The New Yorker. Working-class people were enjoying the Daily News; ladies from the boroughs were lost in Bibles, self-help books, or long romance novels. There were intellectuals and artsgeeks wrestling earnestly with books about philosophy, or thick South American metafictions. Most people seemed to be reading; even those people without reading material were often looking over the shoulders of those with reading material.

Yesterday's crowd was something else. A gal and a guy were staring into the screens of their cellphones. Four people were listening to iPods. Two kids and one adult were playing portable videogames. Three people were thumbing through newspapers; amusingly enough, all three were reading freebie-handout newspapers, not the Times, the Journal, or the Daily News.

As for books? Well, books were being read by precisely two people.



posted by Michael at September 6, 2005


Chicago is inundated with freebie rags handed out at the "L" and subway stops these days, so it's rare to see anybody reading the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, or even the local Sun-Times or Tribune, a sight seen no less than a year ago. I'm one of the usually two or three people in the train car with a book, though I've noticed that increases with the release of a Harry Potter or other popular childrens/adolescent book partially aimed at adults.

But I'm surprised less people read books on the train today. Amazon, Borders and other booksellers are hugely popular. When and where do people read their buys, if not on the train? That's a rhetorical question, because I'm sure home is the most popular place, and many buyers probably never even take the train (drivers). But I've always though riding the train is great for reading. Maybe not something like Infinite Jest (I tried and need to reread it in isolation) but something more easily digestible.

Posted by: John on September 6, 2005 12:33 PM

You really have a bee in your bonnet about this "greatness" thing. One could almost infer that you have some kind of subtle personal hostility or resentment about the hierarchy of literary "greatness". From having the canon crammed down your throat as a youth? From once wanting to write the great American novel? From having to put up with artsy assholes acting out because they thought they were "great" or "a genius"?

Look, debates and rankings of quality or "greatness" aren't some artificial thing imposed on us by literary mandarins. They are just a natural outgrowth of loving something. Teenage comic book fans debate which special issue of the X-Men was the greatest. Heavy metal fans debate whether Metallica was better than Guns and Roses. X-box fans debate the best game cartridges (or whatever, I don't play video games). On and on it goes. If you love long-form prose you will debate which work of long-form prose is the greatest.

All right, leaving aside my rant, I do concede that there is an interesting debate to be had about whether one can even legitimately rank artistic quality, or whether it is all subjective. And many of us fans of long-form prose do in fact believe (why deny it?) that we are engaged in a more interesting, deeper form of artistic consumption than people who play video games. That our "greatness" is better than their "greatness". Nothing I've read here dissuades me from that. And the argument against it is a little more involved than you make it out to be.

Agreed by the way that long-form prose will recede, is already receding, in cultural importance. I have some hopes for long form film drama will substitute for some of the strengths of the long form novel. "The Sopranos" is a better narrative character study than any American novel I've read in quite some time.

Posted by: MQ on September 6, 2005 2:20 PM

Reading seems alive and (reasonably) well among LIRR riders. I'd guess that about a third of the riders on a typical morning train are reading something, not counting those with work- or school-related matters. Reading is slightly less common on evening trains.
One thing I've noticed, however, is that readership patterns differ greatly by gender. Men generally read newspapers, and when you see a man with the paper there's at least a 75% chance he'll be reading the sports page ... if he's wearing a suit, the probability rises to nearly 100%. Books and magazines aren't common among men. Women don't usually read newspapers, instead preferring novels or romances. The Harry Potter books are quite popular, as is the DaVinci Code.

Posted by: Peter on September 6, 2005 2:52 PM

John -- The success of the freebie papers (or at least the visibility of them) is really something, isn't it? Same here in NYC -- they're everywhere, it's happened incredibly fast, and an amazing number of people seem content enough to get their headlines from them instead of the old-time publications. And why not, I suppose? Scary days for the Daily News and the Times, I'd imagine. I love reading on the subway myself; I even have a book-reviewer friend who does most of his "serious" reading on his commuter train. I was a flop at serious reading on trains, though. I commuted for a short time from N.J. into NYC, an hour on the train each way. And mostly all I was good for was magazines and dozing off. Must be a gift. Can you manage serious reading while on transportation?

MQ -- Agree with you completely about "The Sopranos," at least season one, which is the only one I've watched. I found it very satisfying and wonderfully shaped, much more so than 99% of contempo prose fiction. As for the "greatness" conversations, you're being too generous in how much you read into what I say. I just 1) find them boring (there's so much more to say about the arts and our experience of them than just whether a work is "good," "bad" or "great"), and 2) think they're silly. "Greatness" is decided by many different forces and vectors over the course of mucho time, and then it changes, or maybe not. In any case, you're dead and I'm dead by the time it semi-settles (or semi-doesn't settle) out. So what does it matter? And most of the time what people are really talking about is whether they liked or didn't like something. To say "The Red and the Black" is one of my favorites isn't to say it's one of the greats -- two different conversations. So why not be more direct and honest about what our real subject is? After all, many works that are among my personal favorites are on nobody's list of "the greats." Books are especially cursed by these ranking conversations, I think for the reason you're suggesting: people involved in books take their interest as a weighty and serious thing. So books people are especially prone to pontificating and standing-in-judgment. I think that state of affairs can use some shaking-up, and that it would work for the good of books, writing, pleasure, and the arts more generally. Solemnity and standing-in-judgment have their place, but so do merriment, satire, raillery, and modesty. But I do understand that some people get a kick out of these "greatness" discussions, and far be it from me to get in the way of them ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 6, 2005 2:55 PM

I've flown several times recently, and I can't believe the flight attendant instructions---please shut off your game boys, DVD players, computers, Ipods until we've reached cruising altitude. You can't turn your cell phones on at all until we land. Makes your head spin. I can remember when having phones on planes was a big new deal.

But...I do see people reading on planes---books, even.

Posted by: annette on September 6, 2005 3:02 PM

Peter -- You should write a novel about life on the LIRR! Actually, with your blog I guess you are. It's like experimental art. You're making me wonder about another interesting point, too, which is whether the total of words consumed has changed much over time. I get through fewer books and spend more time reading online than I did five years ago, for instance. Yet I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I'm reading more words now than I was then. Guys seem to like reading shorter, more factually-based, and punchier stuff than women do. I think I'm remembering correctly, that women read something like 70-75% of all book-fiction, for example. I wonder if the testosterone has a lot to do with -- we seem to like almost everything faster and harder than women do. Someone somewhere was gabbing about boys and girls and school, and made the point that the kind of reading that's foisted on kids in school may contribute to girls doing somewhat better than boys. What if kids were given shorter/punchier stuff to read -- maybe the boys would like that better, and would do better.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 6, 2005 3:04 PM

Being a hard core library whore, I do not understand this lack of love for books.

Books were my best friends growing up. I have not forgotten their sweet kindness, and indulge myself in their crisp lettered love whenever possible.

For the last few nights, Jack and I have laid in bed, only to throw down the books we were each reading just to get it on, then picked up our books after it was over and continued reading.

Ha. I love it.

Posted by: Jill on September 6, 2005 3:15 PM

Some of your thoughts on this issue kept coming back to me recently while reading "Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates" by David Cordingly. Although I'm very interested in the subject, the 300 page book was just a lot of monotonous text and flat narrative. Sure, there were a few pictures thrown in to spice things up. But, like many serious books, they were discreetly segregated from the text and reproduced dull black and white.

The thing is, Cordingly states in the preface that the book was inspired by huge success of an exhibit he presented at the National Maritime Museum in London. I think the book would have been substantially improved by integrating some of those museum pieces in the text.

Come to think of it, though, I can't think of many texts of this kind that wouldn't be improved by taking a more "multi-media" approach. Why don't more publishers include more illustrations and pictures in their books? I have to think the price becomes prohibitive at a certain point (licensing fees and the like) and they don't think customers would pay for the added value. I know I would, though.

Yet some of the blame comes down to the writing. If Cordingly's prose was better, I'd probably care less about the other multimedia aspects. I ditched that book for Pinker's "The Blank Slate" and because it's so well-written and engaging, one can eschew other bells and whistles. Sadly, not everyone is as talented a popularizer as Pinker.

Posted by: Bryan on September 6, 2005 3:23 PM

That only 50 people climb Mt Everest in a year does not devalue the mountain or the climbing.

However, to the extent they are comparable, the popularity of triathlons shows us something.
And I have a household full of thick multi-volume genre or category fiction series paperbacks.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on September 6, 2005 4:12 PM

Human nature and economics would seem together to suggest that the long, all-prose narrative is here to stay. Consider: all societies, everywhere, have had some form of long narrative: epics sung, told, or written, stories told in murals and picture books, in plays and in ceremonial rituals. Humans love beginnings, middles, and ends, and fat, juicy stories with plenty of excitment and characters that really come alive. No amount of technology is going to kill that basic desire.

Obviously, there are lots of media other than all-prose narratives that can fulfil the human longing for sustained stores, like movies, TV shows, plays, operas, poems, picture books, and online multimedia extravaganzas (though I've yet to see one of those anywere as satisfying, storywise, as your basic pedestrian Hollywood movie). But the wonderful advantage to the all-prose narrative is its stripped-down simplicity. Leaving aside questions of production and marketing, creating an all prose narrative requires a much less extensive investment of resources than pretty much any other form. Digital tools may ease the costs of publishing pictures and sounds, but they still don't get around the fact that each layer of media adds an additional layer of complexity to the project.

Certainly the long, all-prose narrative is going to face increasing competition from other media, but I cannot forsee the day when people who have a story to tell won't find the easiest way to tell it to a wide audience being to write it down. And I also can't forsee the day when people of either genders won't seek out compelling, meaty stories in whatever media they find them.

Posted by: Amy on September 6, 2005 4:12 PM

Your outlook is depressing. Especially that young people no longer see books as something special or sacred. I'm 32, which is still young, and I've found that one of the few things that actually gives me hope for this world and humanity are the long, complex books of all or mostly text and that some people are still willing to read them. In my library of 600 books, only 4 of them(2 art history books, an atlas of the ancient world, and a Calvin and Hobbes complilation) have a substantial number of pictures or graphics in them. I've never had a desire to read books where the text is secondary to the pictures. The longer the book, the more excited I am when I turn to the first page.

Further, having graduated from St. John's College, the "great books" school, whose academic views I am in accord with, I find the idea that some books are not inherently great to be wrongheaded in the extreme. Plato's dialogues are not inherently great? War and Peace is not inherently great?

Just because I do not subjectively like something, does not mean that it is not a great book, or a great piece of art, or a great film. For instance, I rarely watch movies, and the movies I do watch are action and sci-fi flicks. I cannot stand old or artsy movies. But that does not mean that some of them are objectively great and deserve awards, acclaim, etc.

Posted by: JasonM on September 6, 2005 4:24 PM

Annette -- The entertainment/distraction options abound!

Jill -- That's the spirit!

Bryan -- Like you, I think a lot of nonfiction books could be made a lot better by including much more in the way of maps, graphics, art, etc. There's a funny problem that comes up when it gets to a certain point, though -- how to sustain a point of view? Break everything apart into chunks, and in most cases what you wind up with is a kind of reference book, more suitable for grazing than for plowing-through. A hard balance to strike. I dunno: it seems to me that one of the more interesting book-making challenges in future years is likely to be how to infuse reference-book-style, chunky multimedia books with a point of view. Or maybe the whole point-of-view thing is going to be forgotten in the flood of multimedia ...

Bob -- There may well be a little community of dobro players in West Virginia making wonderful music, and you and I may well love their work. And why not say so, and why not try to get other people to pay attention? None of that makes it important work, though, and importance is often thought to be a component of greatness. If and when the long-prose-narrative thing becomes an activity by and for a tiny set of people, it'll have long ceased to be an important activity, wonderful though some of the work may be. BTW, the long-prose-narrative thing is already much less important in a general cultural sense than it was just 30 years ago. Point in case: authors seldom appear on the cover of mainstream mags (very common in the '50s thru the '70s), and many of the people you might expect would go into the field (educated, literate, talented, ambitious) now go into movies or TV instead.

Amy -- Like you, I doubt that the hunger for stories will ever vanish. But I'd add that there's a difference between stories and long-prose-narratives created and consumed in book form. Reading's down, and the use of audiovisual/multimedia material is up -- I can't see that trend stopping, can you? I think you're right on the money with your other point: The real strength of on-the-page long-prose-narratives in the midst of the media market is that they're cheap to create and cheap to publish. That said, what that implies to me is that most on-the-page prose-narratives are going to be like the minor leagues, existing largely to be a kind of farm team for stories. I'm not sure that's what people who argue for the long-term inevitable importance of literature have in mind ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 6, 2005 4:34 PM

Jason -- Always fun to meet a fellow booknut, and good to hear that St. John's gave you such a good versing in the classics. You're quite a different creature than the youngsters I generally run into! Believe me, I'm not advocating or agitating for what I'm talking about. I'm taking note of what I've witnessed, and projecting into the future based on it.

The "greatness" thing is very complex and multidimensional, as MQ noted above. Suffice it for the moment to say that (as far as books go) reading lists change and evolve over time; that some larger patterns do seem to emerge from these ebbs and flows; that a lot of what "greatness" is about in a certain time and place has to do with what that certain time and place is looking for; that very few people find that their own tastes and the various semi-official "greatness" lists overlap entirely; that judgment calls are involved at every step of the way (except maybe so far as "influential" goes) ... It isn't that the ground beneath us isn't solid, it's that "solid" is a more interesting and in-flux thing than we're generally told. And, no, I don't think professors automatically know better than the rest of us. Movies illustrate the point rather well. Douglas Sirk is a case in point. He's now considered one of the greats -- but until he was made a god by some gay filmmakers (especially Fassbinder) he was largely thought to be a campy hoot. As a result of what he was made of, he became influential ... And now he's a standard thing to wrestle with so far as film-history goes. He has to be recognized as "important," whether or not you or I like his movies. But will he always command the respect he currently has? And what if future moviemakers are no longer turned on by (and no longer rip off) his work? Beats me. But it beats everyone else too, of course.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 6, 2005 4:47 PM

So lemme get this straight. Novels are just a farm team for stories to make into wizzy noisy CGI movies, which in turn are merely a platform for selling DVDs and tie-in video games, which are themselves nothing more than a way to whet the kiddies' appetite for Spaceballs the T-shirt, Spaceballs the Coloring Book, Spaceballs the Lunch box, Spaceballs the Breakfast Cereal, Spaceballs the Flame Thrower...

Where Saul Bellow fits into all this I don't know.

If it makes you feel better, Michael, the recent editions of Britannica's Great Books Of The Western World collection includes considerably more prose fiction, not less. Here is the current list of titles - look at all the fiction! The first edition from the 1950s included nothing more than Moby Dick, Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote, War And Peace, Tom Jones, and Tristram Shandy, IIRC.

Posted by: Brian on September 6, 2005 5:07 PM

By the way, that set of books was originally put together by the guys who devised JasonM's college curriculum at St. John's - Stringfellow Barr, Mortimer Adler, and that whole crowd.

Posted by: Brian on September 6, 2005 5:10 PM

The internest riles me up. I find the computer screen much harder on my eyes than a good old book. Actually, I've been thinking about less bloggy time lately: I miss the quietness and warmness of getting lost in a real paper book. The clicky-clicky fluorescent light world is sometimes yucky.

Posted by: MD on September 6, 2005 5:10 PM

I meant internet, but maybe the typo is better!

Posted by: MD on September 6, 2005 5:11 PM

Maybe I am the atypical reader/lover of books, but I just never figured out how to read in a crowded place like a subway, a bus, or even a coffee shop - the distractions are too much. Reading a book is not just comprehending the written word, it is both a private and personal delectation.

In my house, you can usually find me awake at the midnight hour sitting curled up in my favorite rocking chair with a cup of hot chocolate and a book. I delight in the quiet of a slumbering family while I am free to savor each word and travel to unknown worlds and times.

Books are my comfort food, my sanity and salvation. If the book as we know it is doomed, you will have to pry the last printed volume of "Gone With The Wind" from my cold dead hands...

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 6, 2005 9:49 PM

I suppose that I'm not one for "long prose narratives", to the extent that the value they offer is primarily as such. David Copperfield, for example, and Buddenbrooks, and The Good Earth, even though I could find plenty of unoriginal reasons to appreciate them, have felt like chores. Yet novels can do much more than tell a long story and have something called "character development". The play with narrative style in Ulysses is a delight on nearly every page. The elaborate re-re-interpretations required by Pale Fire are engrossing. The deadpan humor of Catch 22 holds up, as does the strange poetic minimalism of Hemingway, and the sociological inventiveness of Heinlein. Hugo's novels continue to appeal to me -- not for the major storylines, but for the frequent fascinating diversions. (In the same vein, Neal Stephenson is just about my favorite contemporary author.) A novel can be big -- hell, it can be huge -- without alienating my 3-minute-pop-song disposition, as long as its genius can be seen at the level of the page, and it doesn't seem to exist only as a gigantic block of story.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 7, 2005 3:33 AM

Brian -- To some extent, book-publishing has functioned as a low-budget try-out place for stories for decades. Nearly all the hardboiled geniuses, for instance, moved back and forth between book-fiction and movies. And in recent years this whole farm-team aspect of book-publishing has been made more manifest because nearly all the major book publishers have been bought up by media conglomerates. Where book publishing could once think of itself as independent and as more noble than the poppier arts, these days it's (90% of the time) just a small division within the general media biz. Book publishing is, as a practical matter, just a small branch of the media business, and often not where the most dynamic, smartest, or most talented people wind up. After all, the money/glamor/sex quotient isn't generally as high in books as it is in many of the other media bizzes.

MD -- I'm with you. Too much electronic-media, and I start to feel like my brain has been nuked and my senses have been deprived. "Internest" -- that should have been its name from the outset!

Pattie -- I think that makes you a typical lover of books, not an atypical one! I know lots of people whose days wouldn't be complete without a half-hour or hour of book-reading at the end of it. Unfortunately, most of them are 45 and older. Very few younger people seem to have developed that taste. They might read a book, they might do something else. The book-addiction is a generally sweet and glorious (if occasionally annoying, when it gets too snobbish) thing. What's going to become of books as we book-addicted people march off into the sunset? My guess it they'll still be around, but they'll serve many different functions, and probably play a different cultural role than they do now. Anyone's guess is as good as mine, but a lot of these changes are underway as we speak.

J. Goard -- Yeah there are a lot of things that long prose fiction can do. I wonder if younger people tune into them much, though. From what I've seen, reading-and-writing to younger people is mostly a matter of information and attitude. They have a kind of email and text-messaging esthetic. At least in traditional literary terms, they seem tone-deaf -- unaware and uninterested. And god knows most of them have no idea of literary history ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 7, 2005 11:31 AM

Michael -- Funny you would mention The Red and the Black, one of my favorites too and I'm rereading it now. I would make the argument that it is great, and to me that argument would be intimately related to the reasons why I love reading it and think it kicks ass. It's just so sharp and entertaining about the particular way human beings tick (particularly arrogant young French male human beings). Since it is demonstrably one of the first books to be psychologically sharp in quite that way it must be great. That greatness discussion is not to me "solemn" or joyless, it's just a natural extension of my describing why I like the book so much. And since I like talking enthusiastically about stuff I like, and "greatness" is just an extreme form of "like for particularly good reasons", the introduction of the greatness issue into conversation does not rob me of any pleasure in books or reading. Make sense?

Posted by: MQ on September 7, 2005 12:51 PM

When Michael B. gets into the subject of whither the traditional book (and it's one of my favorite topics, too, so I'm not complaining), I'm reminded of a quote printed on a freebie bookmark tucked into one of my orders a while back:
"When you sell a man a book, you don't sell him 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue -- you sell him a whole new life."
--Christopher Morley
It's a very appealing quotation, although not very well sourced. I think it implies I'm supposed to know who Christopher Morley is, and I thought I sorta did, when I realized I was somehow running Robert Morley and Christopher Hitchens together in my mind. Still, "Christopher Morley" does have an Oxdbridgean ring to it, like some well-known writer of the present day who has Important Things to Say, probably British, you've probably heard of somewhere, and if you weren't so far behind in your reading, you could place him better.
Turns out, though, I've read the book the quote is from. It's a light novel about the bookselling trade from 1917 called PARNASSUS ON WHEELS, recently reprinted by the people at a mail-order book house called A Common Reader. The story has to do with selling books from a horse-drawn wagon while traveling about New England. Fun and amusing stuff, with some wry commentary about the publishing and bookselling industry as it was about 90 years ago.
Still, the quote given above is a good one, and may be the best line in the book. I just wonder (in line with Michael B.'s musings on the state of the traditional book and its future) how well it applies now...


PS: A Common Reader can be found at:
Their frequent printed catalogs are a hazard to my checking account when they appear in my mailbox, since there's always something darned interesting on offer...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on September 7, 2005 1:05 PM

MQ -- The "greatness" discussion you seem to be referring to is the one that has to do with people saying, "Wow, I love it!" Which is of course perfectly innocent and enjoyable, and can lead to lots of entertaining observations and perceptions. It's part of rocking-out with the arts.

The "greatness" discussion I'm talking about is the one that confines the discussion of an artwork to an evaluation of its status. Does such-and-such deserve to be considered for a prize? Is it really on a level with that-and-this? Does it belong in the canon, or does it not quite make the grade? This conversation is generally a pompous bore, and very seldom leads to anything kick-ass in the way of appreciation, enjoyment, or observations. It kills joy and drags the arts down.

It's also (for a variety of reasons) a discussion the books world is particularly prone to. You and I could have a ball comparing notes, thoughts and reactions about "The Red and the Black" and play fast and loose with the word "great" as part of that. But that's not how the official books world discusses these things. When they take on the "greatness" thing, they really think they're making judgments for the ages; they really think they know best; they really think their opinions count, and deserve to be bowed down in front of. They seldom have much of interest to say, and they really deserve to be goosed out of their pomposity.

Incidentally, for all my love of Stendhal, was he really the first author to do that kind of psychology? I know we're told he was, but why do we trust the people who tell us that? I haven't read the hundreds of other authors writing at the same time he was writing (and/or slightly before), and I doubt that the profs who tell us Stendhal was the first have read them either. Having gotten to know the lit and publishing world as I have, I now take lit-world received-wisdom with a huge grain of salt. The psychology in "The Tale of Genji," for instance, strikes me as quite on the level of the psychology in Stendhal. Which isn't to run Stendhal down -- I love his work. But I'm willing to wonder out loud whether he's great because he was the first, or maybe he was great because he was just ... so great. Which of course starts to become very subjective ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 7, 2005 1:18 PM

I think things are just fine.

At my social gatherings, one of the usual topics is "so what have you read lately?" At work, there's a group of us who trade books, and we alert each other to releases of new favorites. Now, my experience may be skewed because I'm a reader, but I know lotsa folks who read "long narratives" regularly.

I don't see a lot of folks reading in public either, but then I don't recall that being the case EVER. (Outside of college, but then it usually involved a highlighter which to me disqualifies it as reading and puts it into the category of studying. Which brings to mind a phenomenon that I wonder if anyone else has encountered: You buy a used book that someone has highlighted throughout, and you can tell they MISSED THE POINT ENTIRELY judging by what they highlighted. Poor souls.)

Reading something that requires concentration is a solitary exercise, and I think most people sequester themselves to do it. I do.

(The new Harry Potter and Dean Koontz were both good, btw. Still haven't finished the new Irving, because I'm purposely savoring it.)

And, btw, "The Corrections" won't be viewed as a classic even though Franzen is good stylist because it's too marred by the dual dated trends of the pomo litany of small degradations of modern life in decline (no more valid than Kafka's paranoid rants) and the obligatory gay character whose inclusion smacks of fad rather than something organic to the character and the story. This is not to say Franzen doesn't have a classic in him that has yet to escape. It would appear from his 2/3rds-pretty-good essay collection "How to Be Alone: Essays" that he seems to be getting over some of the stuff that marred "Corrections", so there's hope someday he'll bat one out of the park. And when he does he should still apologize to Oprah.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 7, 2005 1:45 PM

"Incidentally, for all my love of Stendhal, was he really the first author to do that kind of psychology?"

Quite right, I don't think he was the FIRST either. Not just the tale of Genji but the French novels of the 18th century (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, anyone?) are a more directly related antecedent. I think what Stendhal was among the first to do was move that kind of observation out of a single limited milieu -- classically an aristocratic court, where people have time, leisure, and boredom for psychological complications. He is operating in a more modern multi-class society where the psychological drama has a lot to do with moving between different classes, there are numerous milieux all interacting. Which was an obvious move because Napoleon and the French Revolution had cracked European society WIDE open, made everyone potentially the protagonist of their own little aristocratic drama. Of course Stendhal was quite aware of all of this.

Or that's my story anyway. Of course it's not just about historical priority but about how much fun he is never a pleasure to read a book simply because it was the "first".

Posted by: MQ on September 7, 2005 2:49 PM

Yahmdallah: Which brings to mind a phenomenon that I wonder if anyone else has encountered: You buy a used book that someone has highlighted throughout, and you can tell they MISSED THE POINT ENTIRELY judging by what they highlighted. Poor souls.

There's them, yeah. Then there's the folks who underline all the cliches.

And then there's the weird ones...

I once bought a Rupert Sheldrake book, used. (Impulse buy; it had a cool title.) A friend of mine had told me that every one of Sheldrake's fans was insane, but broadminded me, I didn't believe him. Then I opened the book and found that every line had been underlined in thick blue ink.

Every line of the introduction...

Every line of chapter one...

Every line of chapter two...

Remember the "all work and no play" scene from The Shining? Well, cue the Penderecki. Shelly Duvall had nothing on me as I flipped those pages with increasing terror. Chapter ten... chapter eleven... chapter twelve...

I haven't read the book yet. Don't think I ever will, neither.

Posted by: Brian on September 7, 2005 6:52 PM

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