shaken & stirred

welcome to my martini glass


michael dirda's tightrope

My personal favorite book critic, Michael Dirda, weighs in with his thoughts on the NEA study in today's WP. Dirda's a little bit of a Luddite (okay, he says he views the interweb as an invention of the Devil) and has a sweet pessimism that pervades his writing on topics such as this, but still, he's a great lover of books, sensitive to their larger meanings and importance and most of all: he cares. And it comes through in what he writes.

My favorite graph in this particular piece is this one, for the obvious reason:

A true literary work is one that makes us see the world or ourselves in a new way. Most writers accomplish this through an imaginative and original use of language, which is why literature has been defined as writing that needs to be read (at least) twice. Great books tend to feel strange. They leave us uncomfortable. They make us turn their pages slowly. We are left shaken and stirred.

Ahem. (Bolding mine.)

His basic argument throughout is that it's not the lack of reading by the American public that concerns him as much as what people are choosing to read (The Da Vinci Code is named), and the reasons (general intellectual laziness and lack of rigor) why that may be.

These next two paragraphs strike me as the heart of the piece:

I wish I could feel more hopeful about book culture, believe more strongly that something might be done. But we've become a shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere spectacle in all the aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that just maybe we've shortchanged our better selves, that we might have listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art, read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because it was time to tune into "Law and Order" reruns, or jack in to Warhammer on our home computer, or get back to the latest clone of "The Da Vinci Code." Sooner or later, though, probably late at night or when faced with one of life's crises, we will surprise in ourselves what poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.

But come the dawn and our good intentions usually evaporate. Why persist with Plutarch or George Eliot or Beckett or William Gaddis when you can drop into a chat room or gaze at digitized lovelies or go to still another movie? Instead of reading Toqueville or Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs. In short, we turn toward the bright and shiny, the meretricious tinsel, the strings of eye-catching beads for which we exchange our intellectual birthright as for a mess of pottage. For modern Americans, only the unexamined life is worth living.

I imagine this piece will provoke a lot of commentary in the 'sphere, because Dirda's view of electronic media and, it seems to me, especially the web is so alarmist and narrow. Book culture obviously has a place on the web (witness almost all the sites on my blogroll and probably a hundred thousand more) and I don't get the sense that people are replacing reading with their submergence into the net. At all. If anything, I've read many writers I might not have otherwise because of reviews and recommendations online -- and that's not even getting into the vast quantity of quality original fiction being published online. Short stories are finding new life, especially experimental fiction, with the possibility for new writers in particular of a much larger audience than they'd find fluttering around in obscure magazines and journals (not that obscure journals and magazines aren't necessary and awesome too -- they are or, um, the Fortress of Words wouldn't exist). Not to mention the role blogs and online news sites and magazines are playing in directing attention to the deserving and new and quirky, to those books with tiny advertising budgets shoving them toward an early remaindering.

To be fair to Dirda, in case you don't go read the essay, the very next sentence after those two paragraphs above is this:

Okay, I exaggerate, and maybe I'm even wrong.

Despite these bits that I find alarmist (and really, if you think the interweb is of the Devil, you're not exactly who I'm going to view as an expert on that particular topic), there are some provocative things in here that I do agree with very much. I am also troubled by most of the stuff on the best-seller lists (The Jane Austen Book Club being a notable exception) and the fact that people do tend to all read the same books and they're mostly not books that I or anyone I trust the opinion of would characterize as worthwhile. (This piece is paired with a comparison of the best-seller lists from 1969 and this year.)

Still, I'm all for seriousness, but I also don't want to grit my teeth to get through something. Pleasure for me as a reader has a ton of different meanings -- it can be language, character, an exquisitely enveloping setting, paired with very difficult thematic material. But it is something I look for in what I choose to read, and I wish that Dirda didn't make serious reading sound so medicinal, so much lacking in its own kind of fun and pleasure. (And I don't even really think he believes this, because my sense is that Michael Dirda is a reader who revels in the books he reads.) Dirda's right: life is short and boredom is a sin.

Give me the hemlock and the ghost story, the foot on the stair and the ship in its epic. Just don't expect me to keep reading if it's dull.

p.s. Christopher finished his very first bicycle race today -- alez!

worm "It's a Hit," Rilo Kiley

namecheck Michael "Such a Nice Man" Dirda


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