Eat Your Vegetables

The 30 Sept 2002 issue of The New Yorker wasn’t dubbed the "Literary Issue", but after reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Harold Bloom followed by Jonathan Franzens’s Oedipal mutilation of William Gaddis and other "treacherously" difficult writers, I felt a bit guilty spending 45 whole minutes watching The West Wing (not counting fast-forwarding over commercial breaks).  Both articles touch on the question of Why One Should Read, and the corollary What One Should Feel Bad About (Not) Reading.  Perhaps predictably, the latter question seems more immediate to me. Franzens contrives a dichotomy between two models of the author-reader relationship: Status, in which difficult writing and difficult reading are pursued as elitist virtues in themselves; and Contract, in which authors both respect and reward the time and effort readers invest in novels (as opposed to other forms of culture/entertainment).

After the Oprah Book Club dustup, Franzens clearly wants to establish his props in the reading-for-pleasure camp.  Much of the criticism that Franzens—declaratively Gaddis’s "number one fan"—levels at Gaddis, that the source of his obfuscation lies in his angry resentment at disenfranchisement, sounds tediously similar to the jeremiads "boldy" proclaimed by anti-PC "debunkers" a decade ago (these "voices in the wilderness" now so predominate the halls of cultural commentary that they have to take turns pretending to recant so they can continue to have debate partners).  I suppose if I had earned the English degree necessary to getting me an editing job instead of my Poli Sci/Philosophy mouse pad, I might have been more exposed to such Dire Threats To Western Civilization as Gaddis and his postmodern posse (or not; the Jesuits still run a tighter ship than most).

I knew little of Bloom before reading MacFarquhar’s profile, but it’s not hard to see why he would inspire a cult following.  I’ve always thought our society could do a lot worse than to embrace the notion that universities should remain isolated preserves for sinecured lunatics who happen to have a gift for so agitating the minds of students that they (the students) have to re-invent their entire personalities every six months.  His obvious facility aside, Bloom seems to have a curiously impractical notion of Why To Read: one reads neither to know the author nor to know oneself, but to jettison such distractions as considerations of character, plot, and historical style in order to "more accurately misread" the author’s meaning.  That Bloom finds poetry to be the most "rewarding" form of literature to so read is perhaps predictable, but hardly helpful.  Where Bloom and I might agree, however, is in contesting the claim, implicit in Franzens’s Contract model of authorship, that reading is a form of cultural engagement or intake easily comparable to appreciating paintings, viewing films, or listening to music.

It remains fashionable to use market analogies to describe the artist-patron relationship, and while I’m not about to suggest an alternate model for remunerating artists, I would warn against "consumers" of culture evaluating any artistic experience solely in terms of its return on investment of money and time.  Because of their association with academic obligations, books evoke a Puritanical reaction similar to American anxieties over "eating right."  As someone who can index development of my personality by when I read certain books, I know that choosing what to read can take on an almost moral urgency.  I am therefore sympathetic to the anxiety that by avoiding "difficult" books one is risking cultural, if not spiritual, poverty.  Nevertheless, there are many kinds of pleasure in reading, and over the years I have usually been able to rely on an awareness of vita brevis to validate reading books of most (but not, of course, all) degrees of Importance.

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