Monday, October 10, 2005

My Apology.

I have been re-thinking a few of the things I said in a former blog.
About reading.
On Friday I had written about the kid I saw in the Chapters store. The little guy who had found his own name being used in a book, and therefore, decided that this would be the book he would read for his school English assignment. [See blog entitled: The Good Germ: Friday, Oct.07, ‘05 ].
I began that blog with what I now sort of see as the rather harsh and unforgiving statement:
It is sad (extremely sad) to me that so many people have robbed themselves (or have been robbed, whatever the case may be) of the ability to appreciate the wealth of vicarious experience that is bursting out of any good piece of literature.
And then later, in similar harshness and in what I thought at the time to be real witty summation, I asked:
In other words, what is more sad? That Jonnee kant reed? Or that his muther duzznt no probbly howw 2teech him reed to?

Ha ha! I kill me sometimes! God, I am funny!
Now, since that time, (Friday evening) I have come across a few quotes from some fairly reputable litterati.... icons in the field, and they have seemed to really nail down what I was saying there in my own world of narrow-minded over-simplification.
The first is from none other than Mark Twain. In classic wittiness, he said:
"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."
My main emphasis in the Friday blog was upon the fact that neither the child nor the mother seemed to know what distinguishes a good book from a bad book. Twain is here nodding his whiskery head, and agreeing with me that to read bad books is no different than being illiterate.
I seem to be in good company.
My next quote is from none other than the great American short-storyist, Flannery O’Connor, and it deals with the issue of vicarious experience:
“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”
I love both of these authors (Twain and O’Connor) but I must say that if I really look hard at what they are saying, along with what I was saying.... I think we are all, the three of us, not altogether correct.

It may be that in speaking about the glories of reading, we are overlooking the myriad of reasons why some people do not read as much as we (the readers) do.
I am thinking today, that while it may be a wonderful thing to acknowledge and applaud a person’s literacy skills, it is entirely another one to berate or ridicule someone else because of their lack of them.
Taken to its extreme, what Twain is essentially saying is that someone who cannot discern the obvious superiority of Nabokov (say) over an Archie comic book, is no better than an ox, which can do neither thing.
Taken to its extreme, what O’Connor is saying is that people who have no interest in fiction cannot possibly exhibit hope or courage, in other areas of life. Secondly, the reason that these unfortunates do not pursue the recreation of reading is because they eschew all forms of meaningful experience.
Both quotes are saying too much, as is my blog on the same topic.

For my part, I have succeeded in doing the very thing I most say that I loathe doing.
I judged someone.
And based such judgement on quick external observation, no less.
So while I do not retract [delete] Friday’s musings, I do want regular readers of this page to consider this that I am now writing as an addendum to the former.

The main reason this has come to the fore of my mind is that I happened across an article by Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections, et al) in his book of essays called How To Be Alone.
The specific chapter was called Why Bother? and was an article that originally appeared in Harpers magazine in 1996.
In the article, Franzen quoted the findings of Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist and professor of English at Stanford University. It seems that things are not quite so simple as I was suggesting in my blog. Simply having a parent who reads is not enough, to produce a lifelong dedicated reader.
According to Heath, young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest. “A child who’s got the habit will start reading under the covers with a flashlight,” she said. “If the parents are smart, they’ll forbid the child to do this, and thereby encourage her. Otherwise she’ll find a peer who also has the habit, and the two of them will keep it a secret between them. Finding a peer can take place as late as college. In high school, especially, there’s a social penalty to be paid for being a reader. Lots of kids who have been lone readers get to college and suddenly discover, ‘Oh my God, there are other people here who read.’”
This is so significant. See, I was one of these people described, in every way except for the part about being a girl.
While all the other kids were playing outside, I created a secret world where I just wanted to be with my books, and gosh darn it if I did not even HIDE to do this.... as the title of Franzen’s books suggests, I sought out “how to be alone” in order to read.
While my parents never forbade my reading, neither did they necessarily encourage it, unless the memory of such a scenario has eluded me. In other words, it was just THERE! A part of me, like the gap in my two front teeth.
My own mother would not have known Jules Verne from..... Verne Jules!

So this quotation from Heath caused me to re-evaluate the situation I posited in my Friday blog, where I seemed to be suggesting that if the mother would just realize that her son should be reading Jules Verne instead of the poorly written trash he handed her at the table, well surely... the very next day, rather than playing baseball, the kid would be 30,000 Leagues Under The Covers.
With a book and a flashlight!
It probbly ‘taint thet simpul!
See, my own early temperament, my entire inner being was infused with the wonder of words and books and reading for as long as I can remember deciphering my first sentence on a page.
I would be wrong, however, to think that this makes me a better or more valuable person than someone else, who was not infused with a similar innate (or seemingly innate) passion.

Secondly, Heath noted that there is a second aspect to the early reader.
“There’s the social isolate – the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview. People don’t like to admit that they were social isolates as children. What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with people around -- because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren’t present, they become your community.”
This last thing mentioned reminds me of Holden Caulfield, in Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, when he says, "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."
Exactly. It “knocks me out” too!
And Heath’s statement in its entirety, I think, is a wonderful way of establishing the basis for the vicarious experience that can come to us through books.

Note: It can come to us. This is not to say that it will come to us.
Everything about our individual personality, our cognitive ability, our upbringing and our social milieu (I believe) affects how we will feel about literature when it inevitably approaches us.
As I suggested, I gravitated toward it (and continue to do so) as though being reunited with air after suffocating.
As a kid, just as Heath suggests, I did indeed see myself as “different” (the social isolate, if you will) because of my love for reading, and I did not want to declare my love outwardly.

This would not have been "cool" and the really important thing was to be "cool".
I recall, in grade six, when the teacher asked us to read individually from a portion of a book that we each had on our desks. One by one, he went through the rows of kids, and we each read aloud. Most were reading very poorly, and so I wanted to fit in. When it came my turn I deliberately read as though I was still in the womb. Ever the comedian, I really played this to the hilt. You would have sworn that I had never seen a word in my lifetime, and all the while, in my mind I was reading the page flawlessly.

Then the teacher, Mr. Radmacher, wrote something down in his book, and murmurred.... “Hmmm. One out of ten for you.”
“What?” I yelled. “Were we being graded on this? Wait. Wait. Let me do it again. I can read this junk perfectly. I bessech thee!”

But to no avail.
I had too successfully proclaimed my feigned illiterance!

And so, what I am saying here today is that I acknowledge that there are certain propensities in some people (and of course, some children) that will cause them to naturally gravitate toward a more cerebrally oriented, literature-based mindset. This does not make one person necessarily better than the other, but it does make them different.

The difference may be as subtle as simply having a sense of detachment about reading which, instead of asking “Why is this important to me?” allows the reader to ask instead, “Why am I important to it?”
There is a big difference between the focus on why I ought to read something, and why something ought to read me. The lover of books is able to focus on this latter thing.

Everything they read becomes for them, an opportunity for vicarious experience.

Admittedly, I am a person who perhaps places an inordinate amount of value upon the vicarious experience that is available in the reading of literature. Often, to gauge how much I can expect to enjoy the rest of my middle age-period and beyond, I simply tally up how many books I have read in the previous year, and multiply this figure by a realistic number of years I can be expected to live!
Hmmmm. 40 books a year? Times what, 30 more years?
Hell, given that my eyesight doesn’t falter, or some piano fall on me in the street.... I’ve got at least 1,200 journeys yet to take!

All kinds of people yet to meet!

And I realize that as wonderful as the adventure of reading is to me, the above-mentioned attitude toward time and life could be just as easily (and just as wittily) criticized by a non-reader, as what I was conversely doing here on Friday night.
Basically, my apologies to the Hell’s Bastard kid.



jo_jo said...

Good Lord, I can't believe that no-one else has commented on this yet. Although I suppose it is pretty long. And you're right, some people are just wired differently and they like books a lot. Most often they have high IQs. It is debatable which of these factors is most to blame for social isolation.

Well I made it all the way through your post and I just want to say that I find it quite disturbing that I will only have time to read SOME of the books before I die. This means that every time I decide to read a book, I am also deciding NOT to read another book. How horrible.

Since realizing this, though, I have become a lot more discerning about which books I will read. If it is dull, yet improving, I'll read the first chapter. If it is just dull, I'll read a few pages, skip to the middle for a spell, then straight to the denoument.

Do you have a list? And, are you a rereader?


cipriano said...

Your angst about the fact that while you are reading something, you are NOT reading something else is one that I feel too. With such limitations on our time, it is tough to be selective about what we are currently reading.
As to whether I have a list, I am not sure if you mean a list of books I WANT to read, or books that I have ALREADY read. Either way, I have both.
Also, about re-reading, I do re-read books that I have felt are so good that they merit such re-perusal. Like Anna Karenina, the Narnia books, Lewis's Till We Have Faces, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, I've re-read all of them. I want to re-read War and Peace, also the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, and Dickens' David Copperfield. I would re-read pretty much anything by Jose Saramago. (but haven't, as of yet.)I re-read a lot of non-fictional stuff too, because my memory is not all that great, really.

Thank you for splashing around over here.