Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Why Read?

A friend said to me the other day, he did, that he didn't understand how people could read popular literature when there was so much worthy literature (say Dickens) to read. And while we didn't have the time or desire to pursue this much further, it is an intriguing question, and deserves consideration. Particularly because I have, at times, had the same thoughts and compulsions, and yet also read the occasional page-turner myself.

There is obviously no easy answer, or perhaps even complete one, to this question, and notables such as Roland Barthes take up the question in books like The Pleasure of the Text. But then why read that?

Obviously we read for a number of reasons: to learn something, to be entertained, to enter another world, to experience the sensuality and musicality of words put right, to confront ourselves, to escape ourselves, and so forth. A writer typically reads with at least part of an eye on craft, and I confess that if there is little working in that area, I soon abandon the book. On the other hand, I'll tolerate minimal craft for good plot, characters, situations, humor, and so on.

But I think we can focus the question a bit more sharply. Why do people gobble up, in enormous quantity, the absolute crap that often ends up in the best seller lists, airport kiosks, etc.? Why aren't people reading work that is more profound, more worthy of being read. Certain writers, such as Mary Higgins Clark, James Patterson, and John Grisham have become literal factories, pushing books out in assembly-line fashion, and making certain people very very rich in the process.

Most of the "popular" books are genre books -- thrillers, mysteries, romance, science fiction, and so forth. Genre books are typically formulaic, predictable. The writer consistently and predictably manipulates the reader's emotions through a set of devices. Given that, people who read these books must want both the emotional manipulation and the predictability these books offer. They want to step out of their worlds into worlds that offer an escape, but an escape that is not too imaginative. I'm making judgements here, and with any judgements there are exceptions, but let's see where this goes. These same readers do not want to haggle with language. They do not want language that is obvious to itself, either by erudition nor syntax. Language in these texts functions as a conduit, and the more invisible the conduit, the better. The same is true of situations. In a genre book, the narration is typically straightforward, the situations non-bizarre. Airplanes do not turn into butterflies above our nation. They stay airplanes.

The questions underlying these desires -- for predictability, for non-confrontative language/syntax, for emotional manipulation, for escape, seem to be propelling this massive consumption of books which would better have remained trees. And the profits are feeding a giagantic machine that reproduces the same or similar code. Why people want this from their reading, or at least want it primarily and consistently, is beyond me.

1 comment:

frank said...

Taste. This morning I had a blueberry donut but I wouldn’t want to live on them…

Really though why does anyone like what they do? It’s not just about the books they read or don’t read. I can’t imagine how some people live in the homes they live in? Why wouldn’t they want to be surrounded by beauty rather than crap? Why?

But really, it’s about being human beings all of whom are unique individuals. It is what makes the world a place of infinite variety. That sounds a bit new-age-sappy I know but at some point one needs to get past really caring what the other guy does or doesn’t, do or like. I have absolutely no idea what has formed the individuals who walk the face of this planet. Certainly formal golden-rule education is a seemingly insignificant part of it when compared to life experiences. To me, it’s a young person’s game to rail against the bad choices or seeming ignorance of others. I can’t change them – at least not in any direct way.

Scott and Helen Nearing. Know them? Both now dead. Scott had been a radical economist in the first third of the 20th century. Some would say a Red. Taught at prestigious universities, wrote a ton of books, made speeches and at some point he and Helen realized none of that really made much difference. They realized that the best thing they could do to change the world around them was to live the life they believed in. Set the example and stop railing. So, that’s what they did from the time they left the urban east coast and moved to Vermont in the late 1940s – at least I think it was around then. They were happier, more productive as artists, thinkers and writers, and in the end changed countless lives by living as an example of their beliefs rather than struggling with people who had no desire to change. Really, we only change those who want to be changed.

Two more things. When I was in my 20’s I worked in a warehouse in Chicago. Teamster shop. I insisted on playing opera on the loading dock if it was on the radio and I worked on the dock. Set the example. Got the stares. Some asked me why. I have no idea what impact it all had. I was a young person.

Fast forward, living in Bellingham in the early 1980’s. A bunch of hardcore youngish vegetarians we formed the Bellingham Vegetarian Collective and tried to take vegetarianism to “da people”. Events, protests, righteousness, good food. We had some fun. Watched bikers buy marinated tofu kabobs from our food stand and listened to them comment on how “tender the chicken” was. But did we change anything, make people eat better food? I don’t really know. What I do know though is that there are way more vegetarians in this town now than there used to be and that nearly every restaurant offers veggie dishes. Nice.

So anyway, people like what they like. Bad books, bad movies, horrible music, living in butt ugly homes. Some eat donuts, some curry. We’ve all come to these things we and dislike by living a life up to this moment. No telling how it might all change. As Thom Bishop once sang, “The past is filled with might-have-beens, and the future can’t be proved.”