Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How to Consume with Ease

A post today at The Reading Experience is about whether reading is inherently good. The blogger makes the point that reading of any kind isn't necessarily a superior use of one's time, compared to any other form of entertainment. He compares reading a sub-par Stephen King novel versus a great film by Robert Altman. Fair point, absolutely, but the blogger just passes by a point that I believe is worth considering:
If the choice for young people is reading a trashy novel or watching a trashy movie or tv show, perhaps the marginally better option is the novel (if only to stretch their attention spans somewhat), but really I can't see it is any kind of intrinsically "good thing" for them to engage in either of these activities.

Again, I agree generally, but there is something to be said for people forcing their minds to quiet down a bit. Isn't that one of the joys of reading? You go into this other world - whether it's fantasy or literary or sci-fi or history or some combination - and your mind settles into it and your imagination comes into play. This is a much different way of thinking than most visual media where images are produced for you. I still agree with the blogger that there are great films that are certainly well worth anyone's time, and much better than many books out there, but I would argue that books in general do a better job of focusing one's brain, of kind of forcing patience on a person's brain, in a way that most films do not.

I went to see a modern opera - my first - earlier this year, and my partner refused to let me say that I didn't like it in form. I just wasn't allowed. Now I still maintain, having seen a second, that I don't enjoy the form, but I appreciate the point: art does not have to be easy. In fact, maybe art should be a bit of work. This all goes back to the point of this blog: books should not necessarily be more accessible than ever, easier to consume and more interactive, more about YOU as the reader. Art should make us work, and then when we are moved or we have some epiphany, we will be that much more appreciative of it. I know books must be published at all levels for different kinds of readers, and readers should be generous with their books so those among us who cannot afford new ones can still get books used and/or at libraries. I love libraries, actually.

Books as discussions, as mere venues in which readers and authors all interact, are not books at all. They are something else, and maybe the Future of the Book folks can find a new name for this kind of media (though this would also force them to find a new name for their institute...). I might not read high literature all the time - I'm currently enjoying Around the World with Auntie Mame, people (and becoming very curious about the author's story, but more on that another day... still investigating). But I'm glad I worked through Ulysses and love getting lost in Nabakov (though I haven't for years, admittedly).

As yet another sidenote, let me say that trying to manufacture this tough reading as a marketing gimmick, as seen with Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, is bad news, but if a writer can do it in a way that impresses the people who know - reviewers, my partner, other serious fiction readers - like Thomas Pynchon with his latest, Against the Day, then well done. This is starting to feel arbitrary.

I appreciate the whole apparatus, in fact, that some find will be dispensed with when the revolution takes place - publishers, editors, authors, reviewers, etc... The Orlando Sentinel blog had a piece on the place of reviewers that I think tells the story, using movie reviews in newspapers. They are the "dying breed" of the headline.
The movie-obsessed have migrated to the Internet, where ethics can lead to co-opted opinions, phony "buzz" and bought-and-paid-for exposure. Are these honest opinions, are have the studios finally gotten their fondest wish, turning reviewing into just part of their PR machine? And career-wise, the fickle nature of the Net means that sites come in and out of style. How can you build a living out of that, unless you live in your mom's basement? The ones drawing traffic and turning profits today will be old news and off your "favorites" list faster than you can say "Whatever happened to Borat?" or "Ain't it what news?"

This sums up my concerns nicely. If art becomes easy, then inserting corporate interests into art comes easier. It's like slipping aspirin into apple sauce. "Bought-and-paid-for exposure."

The internet is too easy. My typing this is too easy. Publishing a book online is too easy. But it's all happening and I'm hardly some luddite fearing it. I just believe as consumers we should appreciate the high standard certain publishers maintain. I'd even at this point praise McSweeney's for the books they produce: creative, original, beautiful, interesting. The Chlldren's Hospital by Chris Adrian was gorgeously produced and at 480 pages, is not for the faint of heart. Well done, McSweeney's! Put it out there and produce it beautifully and let it get strong reviews. I hope it sold well, or decently, because books like this seem to be getting fewer and farther between.

I'm all for mass market books and libraries and I can't wait to see the new Bond film, Casino Royale, which will be all bells and whistles, flashes and chasing and big explosions, but I still find time and money to support literature of a certain sort, that is treated respectfully, that is published as a risk, and that is aiming for more than just shock and awe. Shouldn't we work to preserve this, if we're working at anything, rather than dismissing it and pushing for online everything?

(More on libraries-as-cafes soon, based on this article in the Boston Globe and other articles like it.)


Bookdwarf said...

As a sort of intermission from the new Pynchon, I'm immersing myself into some fantasy for the reasons you state. I don't see anything wrong with reading both things that challenge the mind and things that take you away from it all.

Anonymous said...

nice editing.