Wednesday, August 31, 2011

800 Words: The Unbearable Sadness of Book Lists

A full decade before Seinfeld, Larry David was a writer and performer on Friday’s, ABC’s sketch comedy answer to Saturday Night Live. His time there was mostly unmemorable, but he did manage to bequeath the world with one of the funniest sketches in TV history. David plays an eminent and grizzled plastic surgeon made famous for making ordinary people look like celebrities. In comes a nebbisher Jewish man of generic appearance and scant confidence, who makes a request for surgery to make him look like Howdy Doody. Larry David’s response will forever burn in my memory:


Aside from the greatest Yiddish constipation pun in the history of TV, the point of bringing this up is to say that every time some magazine issues a new booklist, I always think of that Larry David sketch. We all start to make grand plans for all the books we will soon read, and we forever praise how lofty, glamorous and wise our newly acquired culture shall make us.

I consider myself nearly as well-read as anybody of my generation. But I have a terrible, foul, dirty secret as shameful as it is humiliating: I can’t finish books. I’ve probably read the first 100 pages of 70% of the books Harold Bloom would consider canonical works of literature. But if I don’t skip the next hundred pages, I probably won’t finish the book. The only book over 500 pages of which I’m positive I’ve read every word is Moby Dick, and those are two months I wish I could have back. Two years ago, I was extremely proud of myself because I got to page 600 of The Brothers Karamazov and I read every word. But I just couldn’t read the last 300. I’ve read about 500 pages of Anna Karenina, 400 of Don Quixote, 300 of War and Peace, 250 of Goethe’s Faust, 200 of Crime and Punishment, 150 of Remembrances of Things Past, 100 of Ulysses, 50 of The Illiad, and 4 pages of Madame Bovary. Every time I got into the book, the thought occurred, there's too much else I want to read. At this point, I’m probably stuck in the middle of 400-something books. There is just too much else to read.

TIME just released a list of the greatest 100 books of non-fiction ever written. This is just two months after The Guardian released their version of the 100 greatest non-fiction books. It also comes three years after The Telegraph made a list of the 110 greatest books. Nine months later, The Telegraph made a list of 100 novels everyone should read, while in the same month The Guardian released a list of the 1000 novels everyone must read. Those are in themselves a response to TIME’s list of the 100 greatest English language novels written after 1923, which was itself a response to The Modern Library’s list of the 100 greatest English Language novels of the 20th century and Radcliffe’s Rival 100 Best Novels. Le Monde compiled a rival international list of the 100 Books of the century which heavily favors French authors. For more elitest types, there Harold Bloom’s massive ‘The Western Canon’, for which he created an infamous list of the seminal literary works he considers ‘canonical.’ If that sounds too official, there is also a book called The Top Ten, in which hundreds of famous writers submit their list of the ten greatest works of fiction. There are lists for men like Esquire’s competing list of 75 books every man should read, or The Art of Manliness’s 100 books every man should read. Thousands of blogs and Amazon profiles have compiled lists for the best science fiction, the best poetry, the best romance novels, best history books, best crime fiction, the best fantasy, the best travel writing and too many other genres to list. Good Reads compiled a list of all the book recommendation lists they could find on the internet and transformed them into a word-cloud to show what was recommended most frequently (To Kill a Mockingbird, for those who care). The Modern Library constructed a separate list to allow people to vote on their own choices for the greatest works of 20th century English Language Novels (Atlas Shrugged bestrides the top, followed by The Fountainhead). The London Times even compiled a list of the 10 books everybody should not read (with Pride and Prejudice at the top). It can’t be too long before people start compiling lists of the greatest book lists.

We draw ever closer to the first era of human history in which every first world citizen will view literacy as a chore rather than a privilege. If we were born to a middle class household in America or Western Europe, we will be expected to read by the time we’re five. From five until ninety-five, there will be an inexhaustible range of options for us to read, and no end of books which others suggest for us. If you’re curious about the world, the number of books you’ll want to read will probably outnumber the books you’ve actually read by at least ten-to-one.

But long before we turn five, we are inundated with propaganda from cradle to grave about all the great ways to spend our time that does not involve books. Advertisements tell us about all the great stuff on TV, all the great new movies, all the great new video games, all the great foods we should eat, all the great beverages we should drink, all the great clothes we should wear. Are these products worth the itch we inevitably get to try them? Perhaps some of them are, but like most things in life, the promise of something better is inevitably more exciting than the result.

Inevitably, the world of ‘culture’ has a problem. The ‘high arts’, once accustomed to being unchallenged in their prestige, now exist in a world indifferent to what makes them worth appreciating. Why would students, even intelligent ones, become enthusiastic about the Romantic poetry or Shakespeare plays they learn in school when they can find intelligently produced programs on television or youtube which relate far more to their contemporary lives? Why read Longfellow bemoan his lost youth when you can listen to Bruce Springsteen do the same in relateable language? Why go see a Shakespeare tragedy when you can watch a Martin Scorsese picture to deal with the same issues?

Faced with this situation, the forms which we traditionally call the ‘arts’ have only three options - all of which are terrible.

(Raisin Brahms, watching this ad as a kid was one of the scariest moments of my childhood...)

1. Play on their field. Use the mediums of the present to turn people onto the greatness of the past. Use television, radio and the Internet to advertise everything that’s great about classical music, theater, art museums, novels. The problem is that most every attempt to do this, at least thus far, wreaks of desperation. Trying to capture the nuance of what makes complex works of art designed without advertisements in mind cannot help sounding somewhat sad. Any five year old can understand why trying to make Brahms seem hip is a sadly misunderstood enterprise. Equally bad is the stuffy pompous “announcizing” you hear on radio ads in which a Walter Cronkite imitator bloviates about the reasons you should support your local symphony orchestra. Even if it’s a rare advertisement that does a good job of explaining why people should buy an old ‘artistic’ product, it will inevitably be at a disadvantage in comparison to an ad for a product that was built with advertising in mind.

2. Fulminate about the moral superiority of The Arts. Make allegations about the inherent inferiority of more recent artforms to novels, classical music, theater, Western art etc. Make allegations about the ways in which newer art forms corrupt minds and are tainted with the stain of contemporary mores. What is sad about this approach is that it works, at least to a small extent. As in other aspects of life, fear is the best motivator. This kind of demagoguery will convince parents that they have to keep their children’s minds pure and will keep TV’s off, keep violin and dance studios in business and give people the time to memorize volumes of poetry. This was the model behind the entire culture of the Soviet Union. Culturally, the USSR was like an artificial 19th century in which everyone listened to Beethoven and read Shakespeare when they weren’t playing or acting it for friends in their living rooms. Appreciation of the past, however glorious, supplanted the development of the present.

3. Ignore it all. Just keep publishing novels, producing plays, playing classical music, constructing new art galleries. All the artistic creators in these forms should continue creating with the expectation that there will always be an audience for them. And perhaps it’s true, perhaps the older arts should be able to stand on their own in order to justify their existence. But I would bet any amount of money on the fact that none of them would be able to do it. Because more contemporary art forms can provide the same catharsis in far more relateable ways.

The unutterable truth about the high arts is that there is nothing to fear from the Michael Bays and Miley Cyruses of the world. For all the complaints about the encroaching philistinism of today’s world, anybody whose favorite musician is John Mayer would not understand what’s great about Bach or Stravinsky. It’s not the Counting Crows or Wolfgang Petersens of the world with whom we compete, it’s the Bjorks and P.T. Andersons. There is a finite amount of art which one person can appreciate over the course of a lifetime. We live in a civilization so well-developed that the number of superb cultural offerings seem infinite. There are not only thousands of great experiences which we will never have, but thousands, maybe millions, which it will never occur to us to have.

In cultures to have recently acquired literacy, reading maintains all the excitement of a new discovery. For places in the world unknown to most of us, the act reading remains a revelatory experience. Just as we watch TV and movies and realize that ancestors still within living memory never had access to the things we have, books are a still new experience to some people. The majority of the people who can read in the world today are among the first in their families to do so. I remember reading a piece in The New Yorker about Myanmar in which one Burmese citizen said that Dickens would have recognized far more about his country than contemporary England. The people of Myanmar can understand poverty and the longing for domesticity far better than we who are mired in first-world privilege.

It is remarkable how far afield great writing went in the 20th century. Any list of the 20th/21st century’s great writers would have to include writers in languages which only a few million people speak. Turkish has Orhan Pamuk, Albanian has Ismail Kadare, Polish has Witold Gombrowicz, Hebrew has Amos Oz and Shai Agnon, Yiddish has Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shalom Aleichem, Czech has Bohumil Hrabal and Milan Kundera. And even among writers in a language spoken by many, the greatest writers often hailed from the least likely places. Jose Saramago hailed not from Brazil but from rural Portugal. V.S. Naipaul conquered the British literary scene by drawing on the Trinidad of his childhood. Albert Camus was not French but Algerian. And these are just some examples of novelists - if we included poets and historians and philosophers, the list would be far longer.

I don’t think I can do better than quote something from Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican fiction writer whose books I’ve never been able to get into but who makes a fantastic point in an interview:

Let me tell you about a curious experience I had this summer. I was writing a novella about the adventures of Ambrose Bierce in Mexico. Bierce went to Mexico during the Revolution, in 1914, to join up with Pancho Villa's army. I had the problem that the voice had to be Bierce's, and it was extremely difficult to render in Spanish. I had to make Bierce speak with his voice, which is available to me in his stories, so I wrote the novella in English. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. I would be writing along in English when suddenly from under the table Mr. Faulkner would appear and say aah, aah, can't do that, and from behind the door Mr. Melville would appear and say, can't do it, can't do it. All these ghosts appeared; the narrative tradition in English asserted itself so forcefully that it hamstrung me. I felt very sorry for my North American colleagues who have to write with all these people hanging from the chandeliers and rattling the dishes. You see, in Spanish we have to fill in the great void that exists between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries. Writing is more of an adventure, more of a challenge. There is only a great desert between Cervantes and ourselves, if you except two nineteenth-century novelists, Clarin and Galdos.
..I remember ten years ago I was talking to an American writer, Donald Barthelme, and he said, “How do you do it in Latin America? How do you manage to write these immense novels? Come up with all these subjects, these very, very long novels? Is there no paper shortage in Latin America? How do you do these things? We find we have great difficulty in the United States as American writers to find subjects. We write slim books, slimmer and slimmer books.” But what I answered on that occasion is that our problem is that we feel we have everything to write about. That we have to fill four centuries of silence. That we have to give voice to all that has been silenced by history.
If you had asked me today where the novel is alive and kicking, I would say it's basically in Latin America and in so-called Eastern Europe, which the Czechoslovaks insist on calling Central Europe. They think of Eastern Europe as Russia. In any case, there you have two cultural zones where people feel that things have to be said, and if the writer does not say them, nobody will say them. This creates a tremendous responsibility; it puts a tremendous weight on the writer, and also creates a certain confusion, because one could say, Oh, the mission is important, the theme is important, therefore the book has to be good, and that is not always the case. How many novels have you read in Latin America that are full of good intentions—denouncing the plight of the Bolivian miner, of the Ecuadorian banana picker—and turn out to be terrible novels which do nothing for the Bolivian tin miner or the Ecuadorian banana picker, or anything for literature either . . . failing on all fronts because they have nothing but good intentions.
But still, we had a whole past to talk about. A past that was silent, that was dead, and that you had to bring alive through language. And so for me writing was basically this need to establish an identity, to establish a link to my country and to a language which I—along with many other writers of my generation—felt we in some way had to slap around, and wake up, as if we were playing the game of Sleeping Beauty.

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