Well read-head: Throwing the book at literary snobs
One recent evening, my husband posed the question: If you only had three months left to live, what would you choose to read?
The discussion was travelling along perfectly well until he raised a name guaranteed to set me on a rant: Harold Bloom.
Bloom is a professor at Yale University and the author of many books including How to Read and Why. That title alone makes me want to employ the great Dorothy Parker quote: “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
Bloom’s advice is basically that one shouldn’t waste one’s time reading anything other than the classics of literature – Shakespeare, Chekhov, Joyce and their ilk. Impending death means one can only squeeze a relatively small number of books into a lifetime. We’re all reading against the clock. Therefore, only worthy material is allowed. In other words, next time you’re tempted to read Harry Potter, slap yourself over the wrist and pick up Hamlet instead. When it comes to popular fiction, Bloom has declared J.K. Rowling clichéd and Stephen King an “immensely inadequate writer”, although both have probably sold more books than the hairs on Bloom’s head.
The whole thing calls to mind a scene from the film Dead Poets Society in which the teacher has the students rip out the foreword to a book entitled ‘Understanding Poetry’ by the fictional Dr J. Evans Pritchard. The offending section reads in part:
If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness. A sonnet by Byron may score high on the vertical, but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both vertically and horizontally, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great.
To me, dictating the ‘worthy’ books that people should read is literary snobbery that reduces reading to crossing items off a To Do list. Surely the best way to develop a genuine love of reading is to read organically, to just go wherever the mood takes you.
You might think that’s a little rich coming from somebody who (a) is not a Yale professor and (b) produces a fortnightly list of recommended reading items. The difference between Bloom and me is that I don’t imagine my list represents anything other than my own prosaic interests. If you like my taste, well come along for the ride. If you prefer to go and read a comic book, suit yourself. As long as you’re having fun.
The author John Birmingham, one of Australia’s best writers in my opinion, has been a victim of the Bloom style of critique. His writing ranges the full spectrum, from serious non-fiction essays in The Monthly to popular thrillers, such as his new book After America. Reviewers have asked why Birmingham bothers with mass fiction when he’s obviously capable of capital L Literature.
“There is something magnetic about watching a first-rate prose writer deny his better angels,” The Australian’s review of After America noted.
Birmingham himself told me that the question about why he bothers to write ‘genre’ when he can write ‘Literature’ came up in almost every single interview about After America. Back in 2004, Birmingham was asked to react to Time magazine naming his novel Weapons of Choice one of its top ten trashy reads for the summer.
“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Birmingham told his interviewer. “I eat these novels like M&Ms mate, and I have been doing it secretly, shamefully for years.”
How refreshing to hear somebody admit that, given how many of us would gleefully indulge in a trashy book from time to time. One of my favourite books so far this year has been Kitty Kelley’s Oprah biography just for the sheer fact that it was fun, effortless, gossipy and engaging. I described it on twitter as “the literary equivalent of Burger Rings”. Most people took that to be a negative comment but let’s face it – who doesn’t crave a packet of Burger Rings once in a while?
To end where we started, my answer to the question “What would you read if you only had three months to live?” is that I doubt I’d read anything I’d not read already. I’d go for old favourites. I’d choose nostalgia and comfort. Some might be classics. Some might be trash. But I certainly won’t be on my death bed, madly ticking off the tomes that the taste police dictate.
Having said all of that, put down your Shakespeare and take a look at this fortnight’s list of things to read, watch or listen to:
1. Not to get all Harold Bloom on you, but Chekhov’s The Lady with the Little Dog is quite possibly the perfect short story.
2. In which case, that makes the world’s second most perfect short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro. (It was turned into the film Away From Her.)
3. In 2008, the Harry Potter author JK Rowling gave a brilliant commencement address at Harvard University about the value of failure in life and also the usefulness of imagination.
4. Christian Bale IS Kermit the Frog.
5. Thanks to Chas Licciardello from The Chaser for this great story on science unlocking the mystical secrets of male dancing (he’s @chaslicc on Twitter).
6. In the words of Salon, “Andrew Cohen penned a cringe-worthy article on his ex-girlfriend’s wedding day – and then the real drama started.”
8. Todd Levin in GQ on writing for the comedian Conan O’Brien.
9. A solidly argued piece by Tom Switzer on The Drum about his view that the Iraq War exposed the folly of neo-conservatism.
10. As President Obama’s approval ratings continue to slump, Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian puzzles over why, arguing that Obama has achieved more in half a term as US President than most Presidents achieve in two.
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