Friday, June 3, 2011

The Rules of Reading Here

In university I had a professor who kept office hours three times a week from 10 AM until 11.  This was every week, year after year without fail, and as far as I know continues to do so.  And while I was at university, and occasionally afterwards, I would make a point of seeing him once a week, sitting in his office full of books and drinking tea from cups that he never cleaned.  Being very English, he would mock me for taking his cups down to the bathroom and rinsing them out.  He came from Lincolnshire, and he must have had a bit of the coalminer in his blood.

The other thing he used to mock me for was my paltry reading experience.  Dr. Baldwin, brilliant and funny, was without a doubt the most well-read fellow I've ever had a chance to know personally, and conversations inevitably included a long list of books that I ought to read, as he shot titles out like bullets.  I never did get around to reading all the things he suggested.  I bring it up because, well, lately I feel like him.  I never seem to be able to have a conversation without making referencing some book I've read, and telling others they ought to do too.

Oh, not always.  In truth, it comes up more with the young.  I believe it takes time to read all the things that can or should be read, and that there isn't enough time in the first twenty years of life to a) read it; b) develop the vocabulary to understand it; and c) obtain the experience necessary to appreciate it.

In case the gentle reader hasn't guessed yet, I'm again putting off the post I mean to write about A Tale of Two Cities in fovour of discussing an often quoted proverb, "A Writer Reads."  I do agree with this.  It's important to see what others have done.  As important as physically writing as much as possible is, to build up the habit and the focus necessary, it is just as important to discover and investigate what others have done with the process.  A writer does not live in a vacuum.

I have heard people who say that they don't wish to read because it might influence them, or that it discourages them, or that they dislike reading something they wish they had written put on the page by someone else.  Ridiculous, but there it is.  Why shouldn't a writer be influenced?  What can possibly be so pristine about a writer's style or focus to suggest that its good enough to be influenced by parents, teachers, peers and the unavoidable advertising media, but not other books of the writer's selection?  You don't have to read every bit of trash, no, but for the love of sweet little red tomatoes, you can pick out works of literature you respect.

Yes, it is true that something brilliantly written can be discouraging ... and unfortunately, 'measuring up' is something writers and other artists seem compelled to do - with the proviso that if they fail to measure up, they often spiral into self-doubt and self-hate.  So be it.  If the gentle writer can't take a knock on the chin once in awhile, if their work can't be kicked into the dust by a better master of the art, and if they can't pick themselves up and decide to try harder, it is no great loss.  Art has no time for the wounded self-pitying martyr ... that's a thing religion can tolerate, thus explaining why the literature in religion is so consistently second rate.  Art wants its creators to go one better.  And if we are not masters in every piece we write, we can yet be masters of one or two works that will last a dozen lifetimes.  Oliver Goldsmith may have despaired that he was not Shakespeare - we can never know for sure - but that has little meaning to us as we sit down for a performance of She Stoops to Conquer or tuck into a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.

Oh, you haven't read ol' Oliver?  You should.

Yesterday, I said that I did not want this blog to devolve into endless discussions about who is and who is not good.  Today I should like to add a collarary to that.  On this blog, if I say it is good, it is.  This 'truth' doesn't extend to your blog; it doesn't even extend as far as my dinner table.  It carries no weight of any kind outside the framework of this little electronic frame.  Elsewhere in the universe, literary works may have values of every level and measure.  But here, in this particular realm, I will not quibble about using the words, "this work is good, and you should bloody read it."

Now, the gentle reader may, or may not, choose to take my advice.  I certainly did not always take the advice of Dr. Baldwin.  But I also did not stand in his office and tell him that he was an idiot for suggesting books to me.  I did not do that because I was not an idiot.  I came to his office; I sat drinking his tea; I recognized the dynamic.

And now you, O gentle reader, come and sit down in my office, of your own free will.  I am sorry that I cannot offer you tea; it would be in clean cups, I assure you.  Sadly, the circumstance of our meeting disallows it.  Accept, if you will, what little hospitality I can offer.  And in the meantime, please understand that if I make mention of some work in a positive way, I am advocating most strongly that you should read it, perhaps with my examination of the work in your mind.  Perhaps, even with a book you read once upon a time and formerly despised, you may come away from the post about it with a fresh perspective.

Within the constant cat-calling that the lust for social popularity has created, there is a resistance to comprehension.  People wave the things they enjoy like military flags, marching under this or that banner as if going to war, with little or no concern for the purpose behind any bit of art to which they themselves do not personally pledge allegiance.  This I cannot tolerate here.  I do not care about anybody's nationalism.  Nor will I declare any work I appreciate under a banner of my own.  If possible, I shall try to represent works here that I do not like along with works that I enjoy.  I shall try to describe every work with only the intrinsic message of the work in mind.  I shall hope that others learn the benefit of such efforts.

1 comment:

  1. I offer this concession, If you sit and drink tea as you write, I shall sit and drink tea while I read.

    As for your book advice, I should do what my girlfriend and myself do for movie advice, start a list and begin working down it when we get the itch. Maybe some good (or bad) books will give me some inspiration for something to write about. Maybe not in the entertainment or fiction sense, but in the critical form.