Sunday, February 15, 2004

Books Ruined Me

I've always had a problem with literature. That 'Reading Is Fundamental' thing. The whole celebration of reading where they put those celebrities on the posters with books in their hands that say 'read.'

Hello? Read what? Read anything? Read Mein Kampf? Believe it? The exhortation to 'read' is a bit too general, don't you think?

Can someone please tell me why reading--reading itself--is so good? I realize it is a complex mental activity and our capacity to engage in such activities is one of those things that distinguishes us from other species. Also, when you are reading you aren't assaulting or killing others or (usually) even taking drugs, shoplifting or committing arson. And this may be a good reason to get adolescents to read. Of course, the written word is our cultural heritage. It is most of culture. Maybe certain things that are written are intrinsically good in virtue of their beauty, meaning, etc.

And of course reading is highly pleasurable. Reading is scarily pleasurable. Books are my heroin. This is why I can't figure out why the act of reading (as opposed to the book itself) is supposed to be so good. Reading has had nothing but a terrible effect on my life. I have gone almost nowhere socially and economically because I read too much. I read instead of doing the things I'm supposed to.

(True, I always had high grades and test scores and got to go to the kind of schools that are supposed to be desirable for some reason--most economic. But the thing they never tell you is: After they let you in to that school, stop reading! Once you get your good SAT/GRE score, abandon all dilettante intellectual yearnings or it all goes to waste.)

Reading is good in the sense that experiencing pleasure is good but sometimes when you get addicted to certain pleasures the consequences can be very bad.

Still, I'm suspicious about this 'reading' propaganda thing. What's up with that? Why do they want us to read so much? I'm really starting to think: Maybe they know that this will keep people like me from making trouble. We'll be adequately narcotized. We'll complain but are too engaged in our passive activity to actually do anything.

Perhaps the worst problem of course is the way that certain books have infiltrated my thinking to such an extent that the world external to them seems lacking in some way. Or my values have become distorted.

So I get so jealous of the way it's super cool in Dostoevsky to go completely nuts... If you look at the books out there it would be almost hard not to conclude that going insane--perhaps even to the point of requiring hospitalization--was about the coolest, most creative thing you could do.

When I was at my in-law's house recently with all this sad cancer stuff I was browsing through Herzog by Saul Bellow. I read it before. Like me, Herzog is a loser who read too many books and went to school for a long time--but Herzog is the hero of the story. When Herzog does it, it's cool but when I do it--it gets a little pathetic. In other words, the protagonist of any novel is hardly worth imitating. It's better to be the reader--the protagonist is there for the reader's observation...His heroic, tragic and compelling qualities (in modern literature, at least) are the sorts of things that make real people in real life shunned by all.

Protagonists of modern lit-serious novels? They are serious losers. Why then is their plight on the printed page worth reading when if you really ran into one on the street you'd be afraid he'd (always a 'he' if you are reading the biggies of 20th C. American modernism) try and make friends?

So as we live near the neighborhood with all the hip clubs and I see the kids--who 15 years later are wearing the same clothes and listening to almost the same music as I was, where's the innovation--but we are so lame and don't do anything exciting like this.

And now we're having a baby. And it dawned on me right then that I had been thinking maybe the baby could be the start of a glam party life. And why? Why had I thought that?

Damn! Those John Cheever stories! In the John Cheever stories the parents of small children attend a constant round of cocktail parties, dance drunkenly, and kiss near strangers furtively near the coats. I knew adulthood was coming and marked it with the arrival of a child. And this. John Cheever stories. This is what I thought adulthood was all about.


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