Tag Archives: canon

against reading

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
          all this fiddle.
     Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
          discovers in
     it after all, a place for the genuine.
          Hands that can grasp, eyes
          that can dilate, hair that can rise
               if it must, these things are important not because a

I picked up Mikita Brottman’s The Solitary Vice: Against Reading from the shelf of the St. Mark’s bookstore hoping that it was a different book than it turned out to be. After needlessly explaining the innuendo in her title, Brottman starts out with a promising premise: she’s tired of the piety that reading is good for you. I am too: I’d like somebody to explain exactly why reading is good for you. We’re prepared from youth (Fahrenheit 451, firmly entrenched in the high school canon) to defend against the enemies of literacy who’d like nothing more than to burn our books in the name of the future. These barbarians haven’t yet arrived. Like the battalion guarding the frontier in Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, it’s possible that we’re guarding nothing while life slips away. Somebody, in the name of contrariness if nothing else, should be making the argument against reading.

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
          they are
     useful. When they become so derivative as to become
     the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
          do not admire what
          we cannot understand: the bat
               holding on upside down or in quest of something to

Brottman’s not that contrarian; perhaps it’s foolish to seek such a champion in the written word. She’s not arguing against reading; instead, she’s arguing against reading novels. Her book is something of an inversion of Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies, a book not about the impending demise of print books so much as about how the novel shapes character, an argument he moves into the territory of memoir in his more recent My Sky Blue Trades and Reading Life. The predictable arguments are brought into play: Socrates wasn’t sure about poets. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey shows up on cue to demonstrate how novels set up unrealistic expectations for the real world. The novel blinds people to the real world; the solitary act of reading makes the reader less social. Books read in school are boring; the classics are moldy and old and the worlds they depict often bear little resemblance to our own. Reading novels won’t make you a better person. Probably Hitler read books.

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
          wolf under
     a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
          that feels a flea, the base

     ball fan, the statistician—
          nor is it valid
               to discriminate against “business documents and

What best to do? Like Birkerts, Brottman trots out her reading history that it might serve as an exemplar for our redemption. “A man’s work,” remarked Camus, “is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” Brottman finds one of those images in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which led her down the garden path of true-life tell-alls, eventually to find heaven in true crime tales. From these, Brottman reasons, we can learn more than from all the Gothic fiction every written. She might be right. We should read what we like: to the pure, all things are pure, and nuggets of truth can be found in the garbage of celebrities. “Life is worth while,” Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts writes before he gives up, “for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy, and faith that burns like a clear white flame on a grim dark altar.”

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
          a distinction
     however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
          result is not poetry,
     nor till the poets among us can be
          “literalists of
          the imagination”— above
               insolence and triviality and can present

My problem with Brottman’s argument is that it’s not a particularly difficult one to make. Critics worry about a general vogue for memoirs rather than fiction; journalists worry about fiction sold as memoir. It’s no longer daring to claim that a film can be just as rich as the written word. The staid gray pages of The New York Times regularly review video games. Maybe the New Criterion‘s still fighting these battles – I haven’t checked lately – but my sense is that Brottman’s tilting at windmills.

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
          shall we have
     it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
     the raw material of poetry in
          all its rawness and
          that which is on the other hand
               genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Not much poetry is cited in Brottman’s twenty-page bibliography, but the omission of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (grotesquely interpolated with my text) surprises me. Moore’s cross-examination of her art says more in less space than The Solitary Vice; it’s not, perhaps, a fair fight, but this is, after all, the Internet. “Poetry” begs to be re-made: now more than ever, the value of reading needs to be interrogated. Brottman’s book doesn’t quite get there; we still have Moore.

the play’s the thing

In response to Bob’s post on atomisation, Jesse Wilbur talks about how his college-era faith in Great Books seems to have largely given way to the sporadic appreciation of 30-second YouTube snippets.
That started me thinking about the literary canon. All those Great Books. There were huge critical quarrels about their validity, how they came to be great and so on: how bound up its measures of ‘quality’ were with historically-specific class and cultural assumptions. And all that.
Thinking of it as contingent and biased and so on makes it hard to think of the canon with anything like the reverence I felt towards it as a teenager. And yet, you don’t have to be T S Eliot to mourn that reverence, and everything it implied. An agreed-upon body of cultural matter that could (notionally, at least) be shared by all. Cultural cohesion externalised in print form. It’s hard not to find that a seductive idea. Cultural capital, shared frames of reference and implicit association with the elites, all easily communicable to a stranger via a few arch quotations.
And yet, if I know this body of supposedly eternal literature is the product of the collective privilege of a bunch of mostly-heterosexual dead white European males, do I really want a shared body of cultural reference framed by those assumptions? Etc, etc. This is an old debate. The question is very literally academic these days. The literary canon is the hobby of a few; new ‘literary’ books are still produced, but it seems increasingly that we are offered a choice between unacceptable (because obviously stacked in favour of the usual contenders) canonical elitism, ham-fisted revisionism, and deadening lowest-common-denominator populism. Given those options, I for one would rather stick to fooling around on messageboards.
So if the canon is this problematic, either adopted or rejected, then what replaces it? Aimless fooling around on messageboards? This atomised culture in which you cannot ever assume that you have any points of reference in common with anyone? Perhaps. Perhaps ’twas ever thus, and the literary canon was a convenient (body of) fiction papering over the cracks.
But if (and yes, I know this is a big if) the best thing the literary canon did for us was to provide a shared frame of reference for at least some, then are there other ways of achieving the same end? Stultifying elitism, PC revisionism, and drooling populism are all, in different ways, heavily invested in the idea of canon itself, which rests on the assumption that cultural content is produced by others for us to consume. This is a big assumption, and one that Alex Itin , the denizens of YouTube and a zillion other Web fora are busy prodding as we speak. It may be that fooling around on messageboards is not aimless at all.
So what does user-generated content do to enable new shared frames of reference? I’m not convinced that YouTube provides more than, as Jesse says, the occasional giggle, nor am I convinced that the ephemerality of messageboard chat is enough for a culture to chew on. But I think new art forms are beginning to emerge. For example, what I like about Itin’s work is that it moves between online and offline spaces, and involves physical exchanges of objects in real time, between strangers or friends. If (again, this is a big if) the aim of co-creation were to begin to reassemble shared points of reference amid a tundra of media atomisation, then stuff that at least in part actually happens in the physical world is infinitely more powerful than on-screen interaction.
There is huge potential in play, social algorithms, games, creative collaborations and as-yet-undiscovered open-source social codings to enable the creation of shared cultural content that can mitigate media atomisation. Computer games, ARGs and the like are beginning to explore this, but there’s much more to investigate. How might it work in textual form? How do you move between online and offline elements? How can such activity be captured? How archived or communicated? Is there a poetics of social algorithms? I can imagine a future in which the development of social algorithms within which co-creation can fruitfully take place – both on and offline – becomes an art form in its own right. And (perhaps fancifully) I imagine our current state of cultural entropy at least mitigated, if not reversed by such a distributed culture of co-creation.