Friday, October 26, 2012

An Extended Metaphor on Reading and Bowels

Weird observation: on the one hand, books are the object of solitude par excellance. When you read, you read alone. Chuck Palahniuk has a whole essay about how to escape the lonesome writer's shack and how being a successful author is composed of a cyclical flight from, and then return to, being alone. Jonathan Franzen's essay anthology How to Be Alone is titled after the reader's solitude as a kind of political/spiritual attitude: the question of preserving one's integrity amid mass-culture is the same as the question of how to be alone. Neil Postman writes of the breakdown of individual, critical thinking under the force of mass media. We've all had the experience of trying to read Dickens or Tolstoy or Wallace in the library or a cafe and found ourselves utterly incapacitated by the jabbering gossip spewing from some guy on his cell phone, one table over. Everyone's read the same sentence twelve times without it registering, as we try in vain to tune out lady behind us on the bus as she narrates, to no one in particular and everyone in general, the minutia of her day. We've all flown, like substance-starved refugees, from the toiling, yowling masses into the blessed silence of churches, single-stall toilets, locked cars, and after-hours offices. To read. In peace.

But then over on the left hand is the fact that reading cum books cum writing cum bibliophilia is a fundamentally communal thingy. Let's skirt past how books are basically conversations (okay, monologues; but still, it takes two people) on prostheses. Let's ignore the publishing industry, libraries, book clubs, lit. classes, the canon(s), and the new, infinite psuedo-book, the Internet. Forget all that. I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of how books are social objects.

I'm talking about seminars. (Disclaimer: your author is an Evergreen grad, and hence makes liberal use of the concept and term "seminar" in all its forms: as a noun, verb, present-progressive verb, modifier, etc.)

You've no doubt heard (or read) the old trope that "Reading a good book is like devouring a meal" or some such analogy. The comparison of reading to eating is obvious and perennial: food sustains the body; books, the mind. But just as there are different sorts of dishes, there are different flavors of book.

Writers like Dan Brown and Michael Crichton are, as Steven King has put it, "The literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." They feel good while being consumed, they're addictive, and they're basically devoid of subtlety and nutritional content. These are the meals you eat and the books you read while you're on the go: during a layover or pit-stop, you wolf one down.

Then there's real food: salmon fillet with rice and steamed greens, or yellow curry with veggies and tofu. These take time to create, time to consume, and work to digest. Ditto for the literary equivalent of The Magic Mountain or The Fall or Moby Dick or Lord Jim. Thomas Mann didn't bang out The Magic Mountain in a couple months; it took him years to compose. And it takes readers nearly as long to complete.

Here's where the digestion comes in: one cannot, alone, begin to properly understand The Magic Mountain, which has next to no plot, but is a densely packed marvel of metaphor, suggestion, intellect, and psychology. This is the kind of novel that lit majors can (and do) spend decades unpacking.  There's so much in this book. So my suggestion is that we think of seminaring (ha HA! see?) as a sort of collaborative stomach, in which dense, heavy books get unpacked into their constituent parts. You can read The Pelican Brief from cover to cover and pretty much get all there is to be gotten out of it. A book like The Magic Mountain, on the other hand, has so much more than meets the eye that it's almost like the literary equivalent of a fractal or an iceberg. You'll never get to the bottom of it, but with help, you can get deeper into it.

So, oddly, it turns out that books are props for both solitude and collaboration. The actual reading occurs in silence, alone; you cannot read a book together (excluding kindergarden and church). But you cannot understand most of the great books without a community of readers with which to explore them. Like a search party, each reader ventures out into the territory of the book, sees what they can see, and then reports back to the seminar where everyone compares notes. To put it another way, great novels are epistemically complex: you can't understand one at a single reading, and you can't unpack its meaning into a specific expositive statement.

Of course, anyone who's read a great novel in a community of like-minded explorers knows that just because there's no bottom to their meaning and interpretation doesn't mean that they're not worth investigating. Quite the opposite. The bottomless nature of a novel is effectively a guarantee that however much one might get out of them, there's always more to be had.

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