my year of edifying reads: part the second

wherein I discuss The Satanic Verses at some length. let the reader beware.

Hello kittens,

Part the second of my year of edifying reads finds me having just finished The Satanic Verses – which will probably be the most substantial thing I read this year.

It’s just a guess, but, for one thing – I’m exhausted.

Even though I read Rushdie’s magnum opus at a leisurely clip of 10-20 pages when I felt like it (taking about 2.5 months), it still took a lot out of me. In fact, I read ~17 books while I was also reading Verses just to distract myself. It’s a lot to handle.

And now that it’s over, I find myself thinking about the social side of reading.

Had I not been two when the book was released, I could have joined in on the original conversation about the book. And had I read it in a high school or college classroom setting, I at least could have gotten a grade for all my thoughts and feelings about the book.

But, just as when I read The Great Gastby (also while I was reading Verses), I have nothing to do with my reactions to the book but stew on them. (Oh the feelings I had about Gatsby! But everyone I know read it at least 10 years ago, and it turns out you don’t really remember it that well after all that time.)

I suppose my frustration is rooted in my (Russian) lit degree – I had grown quite accustomed to having people have expectations on my reactions to literature. And even though I’ve been a civilian now for some time (eek, I graduated four years ago!), it’s only just now hit me that when I read a Great book (or just a great book), it’s pretty much just for me.

I want to cry out – this isn’t really magical realism! Magical realism requires the characters to have a shared sense that what is strange to the reader is in fact quite normal. I want to talk about the squandered opportunities – at the theriomorphic hospital, for instance. I want to talk about the bad pacing, the lazy trick of making one of the characters develop schizophrenia, the obsessive beauty of the first half and the noxious, pat moralizing of the end. About the uneasy handling of the two main characters’ fates, and the legion of characters disposed of by carelessness or puppeteering.

(I’m reminded of a paper I wrote about Evgeniy Onegin in college. It turns out you better bring your A game if you’re going to tell a grad student that the main character in the foundational work of Russian literature has an unrealistic, improperly motivated evolutionary arc.)

But, no, I’m just going to dump a vague sense of these feelings onto my readers and hope they’ll indulge me until I have something more fun to say.

If I were the kind of person to suggest action plans, I’d say something like, “see, this is why we need book clubs.”

But invariably I’d have to hedge that statement with something like, “but are you really going to learn anything if you start a book club because you want to talk about books?”

And: “do you really want to be forced to read what other people want to read?”

And: “doesn’t this just mean I have to give hispters crumpets every week?”

And: “does not a book group worth having imply the wealth to have both free time and a steady supply of new books?”

Does exposure to literary criticism make narcissistic exhibitionists of us all?

The truth is that no one likes being under the literary gun. The worst part of reading great books when you’re being graded – either literally or socially – is that you will almost invariably like them less than you would if you had read them independently. Having to talk about even your favorite books with a room full of 100 other 19-year-olds under pressure to say banal things can really crush your spirit.

The version of literary criticism most people are exposed to in the classroom is to literature as smooth jazz is to music.

And yet still somehow you miss the opportunity to talk about books that weren’t published within the last year.

Well, kittens, in the tradition of Rushdie, I’ll leave you with this unsatisfying ending. But at least no schizophrenic suffering from the delusion that he was an angel of God had to die for it.

And no, you don’t get a spoiler alert, ‘cos that damn book came out 25 years ago.

– Big Mama Schlomo

my year of edifying reads: part the first

Hello kittens:

In a more or less coincidental new year’s resolution (which so far is going better than learning Icelandic), I’ve embarked on a year of edifying reads.

The rules are kind of nebulous, but basically I’ve decided to read books that I 1) really should have read by now that 2) have some decent chance of being good and that 3) I actually want to read.

So, I’m not just going to fill in cultural gaps (such as by reading The Da Vinci Code – fork that noise).

I’m also not holding myself to finish something if it turns out I don’t like it. Hence this post.

By Valentine’s Day, I had abandoned three books (although I had also already completed 17). These were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sex and the City, and an indie queer book I won’t mention ‘cos I really don’t need to rag on it.

I was a weird mix of surprised and not at how off-putting I found One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Mostly I should have known better about the power of millions of people to be wrong.

Sex and the City was a little different, though. Putting Sex and the City down was actually kind of comforting, in a way. You know, since generally I would say this kind of book is squarely within my wheelhouse (at least for my version of a guilty pleasure). But it wasn’t even a pleasure, guilty or not. One sentence didn’t make me want to read the next. It’s the same reason I’ve never finished Dracula. I just don’t end up giving a hoot what happens.

(Yeah, that’s right, I’ve never finished Dracula. I’ve never even gotten to the part when Dracula moves to England. Does he even end up moving to England? Who gives a rat’s ass?)

So…

I’m not saying anything dramatic like it took me to the age of 26 to realize that I could abandon books. Partially because I still felt guilty about it. But after paying some nice middle-aged ladies from the former USSR $60,000 to tell me I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion about books until I had finished giving them all my money, I realized that that’s simply not true.

You might not have the background to place such and such a text in its historical context, yadda yadda, and you might not get all of the subtle devices or allusions or whatever the hell is going on. But the literary criticism machine invokes/perpetuates(creates?) the false notion that no work of art need function in and of itself, which is moronic. It’s why 20-year-olds fall all over themselves to become Nabokov scholars: there is, in effect, a right answer with someone who tries that damn hard to be clever.

Look: your college lit profs might think the most important thing is that you get some reference to Gargantua and Pantaguel (you know, without ever actually assigning Gargantua and Pantagruel), but that’s not the way reading as an adult works. Study your notes, pass your test, and then grow up to see the difference between assimilating why someone wants you to read a book and whether or not that book is worth reading to you.

Ever love,
Big Mama Schlomo