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Reading Upward–for Pleasure

Imagine this scenario: someone writes a book called Why Don’t People Read Anymore?

That was supposed to be a joke. 

Actually, NPR published an April Fools’ Day article called “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” earlier this year. Many people didn’t actually click on the article, instead posting angry comments below it–“I do too read!”–before NPR revealed the prank. The real question, as Jay Hathaway later observed, isn’t why we don’t read. It’s why we comment when we’ve only read a headline.

It was a walk through a bookstore earlier today that got me into this train of thought. There were lots of books on reading–how to read literature like a professor, etc. The bad thing is that I’ve known professors who probably never read anything worthwhile. If you have to read like a professor, don’t read like those professors.

Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College, doesn’t think you should read like a professor, either. In fact, he says, he began to lose his ability to read for pleasure because he was so used to scanning what he read for important information. His book is The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It is a mostly pleasurable read, fortunately.

Jacobs takes on people who argue that you should read what is “good for you.” That, he says, is precisely what you should not do. If you only read what’s good for you, regardless of whether it interests you and even whether you can understand it, then you’ll lose the ability to read for pleasure. (You also may not understand what the book in question is talking about. In sum–you’re wasting your time.)

Yet Jacobs also suggests reading upward. What he means by that is, if you like The Lord of the Rings, try reading Beowulf. Don’t read downward, to cheap fantasies that have none of Tolkien’s power. Read for pleasure! Poorly written stuff simply isn’t as rewarding. And if you like Jane Austen, read other novelists of her era. Don’t read downward to all the Jane Austen “sequels.” They aren’t nearly as pleasurable as Austen. If you turn to them out of a love for Austen, you’re cheating yourself.

Above all, enjoy your reading time. Jacobs apparently considers lying about what you have read a lesser evil than never reading anything for pleasure. Personally, I’d rather know someone who forced themself through Plato’s Republic to no benefit than someone who would prefers seeming intelligent to being honest. A comment like that makes me wonder whether Jacobs has ever known a pathological liar. Short version–it makes you hate lying.

So read upward–for pleasure. And if admitting that you read for pleasure embarrasses you in front of your friends, ditch the friends.

Please.

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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Nonfiction

 

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What’s with All the Stupid Fantasy?

I recently picked up a book about why manners are important. That may have been the title; I can’t remember now. It was sold in a shopping complex where about the only thing I could afford was a sandwich. Which was all I wanted, fortunately. But I did page through the book. It was exactly what it said, and I could appreciate most of it, even though etiquette was always my sister’s hobby, not mine. But one section gave me pause.

The author evidently loves novels of manners because she likes realistic characters who have to work through their flaws and mature. So far, so good. But she finds the current taste for fantasy disturbing. Imagine, she says, a fourteen-year-old girl who reads fantasy exclusively. Most of the time she reads stupid, caricatured descriptions of people who like to swing swords around. What little good fantasy she reads involves black and white moral dilemmas with characters so elevated that they are unrelatable and teach little about how to live in the real world. (I can only assume the author was thinking of Tolkien.)

I sympathize with some of the author’s complaints. Although I consider fantasy my favorite genre of literature, I actually do not read it very often. I don’t like the stupid characters, either. Especially the warrior elf queens who feel like they were invented to prove that women can be tough. And there are other problems with fantasy stories beyond those that might irritate a Jane Austen fan.

C.S. Lewis complained about people who wrote “science fiction” stories with perfectly ordinary plots—spy-stories, romances, and so forth—which have nothing to distinguish them as fantastic but the unusual setting. There are still a lot of stories like that. Whatever fantastic elements are there feel arbitrary. The wonder and sense of strangeness are missing. If you read fantasy for “otherness,” then the pickings are very slim.

I’m not going to comment on the author’s shallow interpretation of Tolkien except to say that if she thinks Boromir, Denathor, and Saruman fit neatly into black-and-white categories, she hasn’t been reading carefully. And The Silmarillion includes characters even more complex than those in The Lord of the Rings—if complex is what she really wants. (Sometimes I think that what people mean when they object to “black and white” characterization is that they don’t like reading about a world where a clear good and a clear evil exist, even if both are complex. But I would say, with Tolkien, that the real world is like that. Good and evil may be complex, but no one will be talking about shades of gray at the Last Judgment.) As for relatable, I think that in some ways Tolkien’s characters are more relatable than “realistic” ones. Frodo is an Everyman—as is Gollum. Archetypes are relatable precisely because they are archetypes. And archetypes can be complex.

The truth, I think, is less that fantasy characters are not relatable and more that the author could not relate well to fantasy characters. Well—that’s fine. Everyone has a favorite genre. I would rather relate to Frodo, or Faramir, than to Elizabeth Bennett. (In the past, I have even tried to deal with difficult people by trying to imagine them as Gollums, who, if evil, are also pathetic and in need of compassion.) It’s a personal preference. People who like good fantasy (scarce as that is) are not inferior to people who like good novels of manners (and I’m sure there are bad ones). It’s a difference in kind of taste, not necessarily quality.

But I recently re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” and it brought another problem into view. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were the hardest form of literature in which to write. To produce something that attempts to show what reality is really like, while simultaneously rearranging that reality, is extremely difficult. Thus, someone attempting a novel of manners has an immediate advantage over someone attempting a fantasy. In Tolkien’s words:

Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Another potential misunderstanding comes because, over the course of the last century, literature has grown more and more like drama. “Show, don’t tell” is the instruction I was given when I took a creative writing course in college. It works well—for realistic fiction. In fantasy, things don’t work quite the same way. My English professor warned our class, “Showing is not always superior to telling.” She was right. Of course, a fantasy can tell too much, but the point is this—realistic fiction and drama may be able to grow together, but drama and fantasy have no such luck. Even modern fantasy movies, with all their special effects, cannot exactly reproduce the feeling of “otherness” that a good fantasy story creates. I like The Lord of the Rings films, with a few reservations, but I don’t go to them for “otherness.” To fully appreciate the Elves, and Lothlorien in particular, you need the books.

Fantasy is hard to write. Flannery O’Connor once remarked that so many people had learned to write a “competent” short story, that the short story was in danger of dying of competence. Fantasy has no such problem. And your creative writing class may not help you—“show, don’t tell” injunctions only go so far.

If you love novels of manners, then go read them—by all means. Beyond reading a few fantasy classics, most works in the genre aren’t worth your time. But don’t blast the genre. Competent fantasy is harder to write than competent realistic fiction. Keep fourteen-year-olds away from the warrior elf queens, please. But introduce them to the good modern authors of imaginative fiction: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engel, Ray Bradbury. And if they run out, try going back in time to Beowulf. Or The Kalevala. Or The Niebelungenlied.

Jane Austen would be okay, too.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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Zombies and Indians | The American Conservative

I don’t watch much TV (and that might be an understatement), but it’s hard not to be aware of the current zombie-mania afflicting those who do. And it isn’t only the TV-addicts. Book lovers have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, provided that they are not Jane Austen purists. Still, I was surprised to hear a woman at church say a friend of hers didn’t want to talk about Christianity because “there might be a zombie apocalypse.”

Any movies involving folklore usually slaughter the folklore, and zombie movies are no exception. We have come a long way from West African zombie stories, in which a sorcerer was the real culprit, raising dead bodies for his own personal use. The cultural significance of the zombie obsession? Well…I’m guessing that it’s related to the dystopian obsession, some eschatology obsessions, and also the obsessions of certain political junkies. We live in an uncertain world. Some people try to avoid discussing the uncertainties, but other people delve into them or transform them by other means. Thus, zombies.

But does the fact that many of us like reading or watching zombie-related material signify something more than simply uncertainty? I’m not sure. Noah Millman, in his article “Zombies and Indians,” argues that it does. I’m not sure that I’m completely convinced by his arguments (and I disagree with his comparing current treatment of zombies to Tolkien’s treatment of Orcs). But Millman’s main assertion holds. If we want to criticize the dehumanization of the Indians in old Westerns…well…the zombies are more dehumanized. For obvious reasons, certainly–but do zombies books and films reflect a preference to view enemies as inhuman?

I can’t answer that question, but it certainly is one to ponder. If the answer is yes, then we really aren’t morally better than our ancestors. For some of us, that is no surprise. For others, there might be some serious thinking to do.

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2013 in Science Fiction

 

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