Friday, April 29, 2011
Friday, April 22, 2011
The NPR article describes two strategies:
1. culling - reject large categories of items as not worth consuming
2. surrender - acknowledge that time is finite and one just won't get to some items which are (nevertheless) worth consuming
As The League and some of his commenters pointed out, in practice most people utilize both strategies, and both indeed seem necessary in this era of information oversaturation. But it still leaves the question of whether or not it is still possible to be "well read," and if so, what that would mean. The suggestion of the NPR writer seems to miss the point of the original phrase.
If "well-read" means "not missing anything," then nobody has a chance. If "well-read" means "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully," then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we've seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can't change that.
"Well read" when said of Thomas Jefferson (The League's example) or David Foster Wallace, or a witty conversationalist one meets at a cocktail party certainly does not mean "not missing anything." And "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully" doesn't seem very helpful for those who wish to be "well read."
A natural way to interpret the phrase is in terms of a list of must reads, works anyone must have read in order to be "well read"—as The League points out, however, if this list is identified with the canon as taught in high school, it seems problematic. How was it chosen? Why Thomas Hardy, whom every schoolboy hates?
If custom, or even whim, dictates some of the members of the high school English class canon, how can we separate out the wheat from the chaff? I think there is definitely a unique set of problems which arise post-20th century for this endeavor.
1. Maybe sufficient longevity of popularity is enough to ensure the read-worthiness of some works (e.g. The Iliad or Shakespeare), but this process is open to artificial corruption (e.g. continued "popularity" of Thomas Hardy as measured in sales of books to students for whom it is required), requires culling itself (e.g. must one today have read Caesar's Gallic Wars to be well read? Even if that might have been the case 200 years ago in England?), and, perhaps most importantly, does not apply to contemporary works which one must read to be "well read."
Strangely, Ebert's musings are set off by reminiscing about authors considered required reading in the mid-20th century, but whom have become forgotten, irrelevant, or both:
"Consider: who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his "field") is reading Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, John Berryman, Allan Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Anne Sexton, Alice Adams, Robert Lowell, Grace Paley, Owen Barfield, Stanley Elkin, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, R.P. Blackmur, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen Spender, Daniel Fuchs, Hugh Kenner, Seymour Krim, J.F. Powers, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Rahv, Jack Richardson, John Auerbach, Harvey Swados--or Trilling himself?" [Ebert quotes Ozick]
But this brings us to:
2. Being "well read" seems context specific. Certainly, temporally context specific—if Ebert's discussion is presumed to be relevant, than a greater onus falls upon he who would be "well read" to pursue the top works of his own time, than those of the past. Or, to put it in the above terminology, his culling of contemporary works is assumed to be less severe.
Also, here, one might want to add cultural or geographic context specificity. Can the "well read" Englishman and the "well read" Spaniard be expected to read the same (or even largely the same) books? Surely one is to read Shakespeare in the original and the other to read Cervantes. But in an age of increasing informational contact between cultures, how much from outside and how much from within is the "well read" supposed to consume? Am I expected to read every Nobel Prize winner? Has anyone? What if their works have not been translated into my language? And also here, one must temper the value of such works by the cost of translation: a lesser work by a writer of one's native language may have a greater positive effect in improving one's rhetorical and linguistic skills (marks of the "well read"?) than a superior work translated from the original.
3. The problems of media and genre. The League rightfully defends the value of cultivating genre interests. Part of the benefit of being "well read" comes in uncovering layers of meaning in new works, of spotting allusions, of recognizing influences and references, of fully understanding the language they use—yet this endeavor seems possible today only within a narrowly defined genre / medium. Although I cannot grasp all the languages in communicative use today, I may be able to grasp the language of film, of poetry, of comics, of the mystery novel, the sci-fi novel, the pot-boiler, or some other one or handfull of the myriad niche markets which have arisen.
As the amount of available information increases, inevitably, the expected overlap in background knowledge diminishes. While a British novelist in the nineteenth century might have been able to assume a broad familiarity with Shakespeare and Chaucer and major Latin works amongst his readers (hmm, here also contextualization by class?), the modern writer can make no such assumptions. Within the confines of genre, however, expectations are heightened. If you would only be reading this piece were you a fan already, and being a fan implies reading such and such other pieces, then the writer / creator can assume you've read them, and reference them and build on them. Ideally, heightening the complexity of their work (and also your enjoyment of it). Not that things always work out this way.
I think these worries speak against the possibility of a list of canonical works for the "well read." I don't think this defeats the possibility of being "well read," though. To me, the word refers to one who has read widely, but also has digested and internalized the information he consumed. There must be a familiarity with classics, particularly those which shaped modern thought and language (Shakespeare on every list here). In terms of contemporary works, allowances for culling must be made. I would not withhold the term "well read" from someone just because they had not read (say) David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, even though that work is superior to most of those on Ebert's list. It's simply too much to expect.
Perhaps, though, the bottom line is just that to be "well read" is no longer meaningful. One could read the works that made one "well read" once upon a time, yet not achieve the same effect—understanding the context of every remark, catching every reference, spotting and understanding every allusion. And no alternative strategy seems able to achieve that effect either.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
[Exception which proves the rule: the recent trite crap "completion" of the Star Wars saga. nuff said.]
[Of course, in media other than the written word, unfinished status can be conferred by situations other than the writer/creator's death: go watch post haste if you have not already, Andrzej Żuławski's On the Silver Globe, the greatest unfinished movie of which I am aware—and be moved.]
There are, of course, famous examples here, e.g. Kafka's Amerika or Nabokov's Dying is Fun—although in both cases an ethical question arises since the respective authors requested their unfinished works destroyed upon their deaths.
In the case of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, I know of no such request. The question does, nevertheless, arise: what legitimates publishing this unfinished work and distributing it widely?
Apparently, upon Wallace's suicide from depression, he left behind on his desk "a neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling nearly 250 pages" and "hundreds and hundreds" of additional pages and notes for the novel scattered about his office. (There was, however, no outline, or explicit description of the novel's intended structure and ordering of events / written sections.) His editor on Infinite Jest, Michael Pietsch, was tasked with assembling this chaos into something that could be published, and make money for the publisher / the estate.
Graciously, the details of these circumstances are described in an introductory editor's note.
So, when reading the book, there are many questions: is this the right order of the information? Would this chapter have even been included? In this form? Questions which, when reading a completed work, are not raised. And worries (questions / confusions / imaginations) about the structure of the work are no longer criticisms of the author (and, perhaps, only on some occasions criticisms of the editor), but rather merely circumstances under which one might imagine one's own perfect version of the work, or extrapolate its completion into the ideal work for you, the reader (even if not one that's realistic for the author to have produced, editor to have approved, etc.).
Was it right? ( . . . to publish this unfinished, to charge $27.99, etc.?) In the case of The Pale King, I know of no countervailing demands expressed by Wallace, and I emphatically agree with Pietsch's assessment that there is plenty here for the reading public to enjoy / value. (Even if there is some sense in which the dead are being taken advantage of, you, the $27.99 reader are not. I say this only a fifth of the way through the book, and already having earned back the cost through insight, amusement, and beatific and sublime experiences.)
The first chapter (only a page and a half) is almost worth the price of admission alone for sheer beauty. There are ups and downs, but chapter 9, the "author's forward" definitely confirms the value and insight of the work, no matter how disjoint, and (ultimately, despite the fact that only Wallace's name appears on the title page) collaborative the work in this form is. (Look, chapter 11 is just notes, it would not have appeared in a finished novel by Wallace. And the influence of its content on the novel would not have been felt at the precise place in the ordering in which it was placed. Pietsch knows this. But he acknowledges it and, more importantly (consequently?) you the reader know it as well: this affects your processing and interpretation of chapter 11.)
I have to admit, however, a spooky feeling, when reading passages like
. . . this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829—deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true.
Of course, even in this "autobiographical" section, there are deliberate obfuscations and falsities. But from the style, from the circumstances, we know that one day Wallace sat down and wrote these words, and he wrote them from a perspective in which the novel was finished, and published, and it had only taken 3 years to write. We know that he put himself in that frame of mind, and "talked" to the potential reader. But within 3 years he had become so completely unable to find this frame of mind in which the novel was done again that he committed suicide.
This is a man talking directly to you, the reader, from beyond the grave, yet it was not him who decided that you would hear him, but his estate and publisher and editor. Again, not that that's wrong (this is the start of the aforementioned chapter 9, well worth the price of the book alone in terms of insight and depth), but that it's certainly spooky. And you allow yourself to imagine Wallace cutting it, or rephrasing it, or (more likely, my imagination), dropping the conceit that the work is real, and introducing the (admittedly, startlingly profound) discussion of the history and nature of American taxation into it in a more organic way. To imagine that this was an exercise in the style of his popular nonfiction essays to bring together information that ultimately would be more effectively (?) conveyed through fiction.
But then that's just my fantasy of David Foster Wallace, and what he might have done. But to even take the first tentative steps on this staircase, to even find a direction in which to look, is not only worthwhile, but strangely creative as a reading experience.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
The next suitable person you're in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, "What's wrong?" You say it in a concerned way. He'll say, "What do you mean?" You say, "Something's wrong. I can tell. What is it?" And he'll look stunned and say, "How did you know?" He doesn't realize something's always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn't know everybody's always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they're exerting great will power and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing's ever wrong, from seeing it. This is the way of people. Suddenly ask what's wrong, and whether they open up and spill their guts or deny it and pretend you're off, they'll think you're perceptive and understanding. They'll either be grateful, or they'll be frightened and avoid you from then on. Both reactions have their uses, as we'll get to. You can play it either way. This works over 90 percent of the time.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
Mirren plays Prospero ("Prospera") in Julie Taymor's The Tempest (2010), played by Gielgud in Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991).
Mirren also plays Hobson in Arthur (2011), originally played by Gielgud in 1981.
. . . perhaps that's why she's a Dame and he's a Knight . . .