Monday, January 22, 2007

Why Do I Read?

“We read to know we’re not alone.” This sentiment has been attributed to C.S. Lewis, but I very much doubt those are his words. It’s a modern prescription (the novel) for a modern condition (the loneliness of crowds), and Lewis was to his dying day one of Modernity’s noisiest discontents. I think the closest this quote came to the Bard of Narnia was in the movie Shadowlands, when Anthony Hopkins’ Lewis hears these words from a former student. But no matter; it serves as a good launching point for my purposes.

Certainly any work that imparts a sense of solidarity is preferred over a work that alienates. I go out of my way to avoid most philosophy and theology because they specialize and excel at the latter. Tell me a good story, though, and you will quickly get me on-side, no matter if you are an atheist or a true believer. So let’s start with the obvious genre:

Why do I read novels?

Albert Camus said the central problem for philosophy was the question of suicide; John Gardner insisted that good fiction should answer that question and delay the suicidal hand. Well-wrought fiction can have uncommon comforting and even therapeutic powers; novels especially so, because of the breadth and depth of their fictive dream. They reach out and coax the reader into the middle ground — our common humanity. And that is where I like to be.

Why do I read essays?

Did I say I avoid philosophy and theology? That's inaccurate. It’s unusual of me to read an entire book of philosophy or theology — or theory of any stripe — from beginning to end. There are a few exceptions to this rule: I’ve already noted Camus and Gardner, and I’ll throw in John Carey and Northrop Frye while I’m at it (re: Frye, I’m old enough to have seen him in person, and I have to confess I never thought his star would fade so rapidly, even within an academia delirious with po-mo rhetoric. Shows to go ya, I guess). But on any given week, I will have read over a dozen essays in as many fields.

Dogmatic essays are a manageable annoyance. I have a great dislike of polemics, especially as I get older. They can chip away at you like an unremitting hail-storm — or (more likely) toughen a person’s hide to the point of impenetrability. The best essays are like the best people: patient and long-suffering, with a proven sense of humor whose target is usually their own reliable folly. Those essays can sustain a reader like a gentle rain does a sailor in a lifeboat. They might even alter his course for the better.

Why do I read book reviews?

Various reasons: Saves me reading the book; the reviewer is someone with an identifiable point of view I’m keen to hear on the given subject; the reviewer has had a long-standing beef with the author, and I can’t wait to see her rip him a new one; the reviews give me a general idea of my culture’s zeitgeist re: (insert topic — the Middle East, art & infamy, celebrity, etc. — here).

I’ll admit, though, that my interest in book reviews has taken a sharp drop since the advent of the blog. I used to devour the NYTBR. No more (but dig this: it’s been many, many years since I gave Norman Mailer the time of day. After reading this, I’m almost tempted to pick him up again. Impressive, no?). I used to read the Globe & Mail Book Review, because what was said on those pages had a direct impact on what was sold in our store. Well, the store is gone, and the last G&MBR review to nudge me toward a purchase was Robert Wiersema’s rave of R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy trilogy. Say, wait a sec: doesn’t this guy have a blog or two? (He’s got a terrific novel, too — buy it here.)

I’d be curious to read some industry stats, re: Canadian publishing and sales. My personal, subjective sense of the industry, based solely on the feeling in my gut occasionally emboldened by an extra dram of whisky, is the only people who buy titles after reading a G&MBR rave are the people tied directly to the industry: people who know people who write for these very people. When I walk through just about any book store, I get the feeling the whole enterprise is teetering on the verge of a spectacular collapse. Remainders are steadily taking over the floor in your local big box outlet, chiefly because these same people overstocked the book at the cover price a year earlier. Then they shipped it back to the publisher, who offloaded it to a remainder house, who sold it back to the box store for pennies on the dollar. Someone tell me who paid the truck driver to cart all these flats of paper back and forth, and where’d that money come from?

Anyhow, unless you are somehow linked to my sidebar — i.e., I feel like I “know” you, or am in some significant way sympatico with you — odds are I won’t read your book review. And if I do glance across your review (out of weekly, bleary-eyed Saturday morning habit, say), odds are even better that I won’t take your opinion seriously enough to either buy or avoid said book. Why? Because your essay is probably good enough, but hardly great. And if you don’t blog, you aren't making up the difference. Sorry, but it’s true.

Speaking of which, this looks like a nifty read, dunnit? I’ve got mine on order now.

Why I read music reviews.

I don’t. The last time I did, the critics were all singing the hosannas of The White Stripes and The New Pornographers. Oof, but that train done left the station…

I’m trying to think of other things I read, but at this point I’m drawing a blank. In the next day or two I’ll get to why I prefer some kinds of pulp fiction over others.


Jim said...

Sure that quote is from Lewis! It's from his very obscure work, entitled "Mere Christians Who Have Faces and Hideous Strength, Observed."

Yahmdallah said...

You pretty much describe my habits, too.

I originally subscribed to Entertainment Weekly because they were the only popular publication that regularly ran book reviews that weren't directed at cultural tards (like People mag), or the snobs (like NYTBR). For a while, they were pretty good, but have become hit and miss. I would guess that it's considered the scut job at EW to have to review a book. (And I can see why if you get two to three paragraphs to describe something that took days to complete.) And, anymore, they give too much credence to books by post-modern flakes and anything to do with being gay. (Sorry, I know that topic's thorny, but if it walks like a duck...)

The one book reviewer whom I have come to trust is's Laura Miller. She's always fair, funny, and so well-informed it kinda amazes me. I never miss one of her articles or reviews.

On Amazon, I always read the first two pages of one-star reviews. Usually this proves either most of the reviewers have an ax to grind, or they have a legit reason why the book sucks. Then I hunt for a reviewer who's given it many stars and appears to have really thought about it.

Music reviewers screwed the pooch long, long ago. I think the most identifiable time was when they started to say rap was "the poetry of the streets" and we should all listen because of that. Spare me. What about the songs? Are they good? Screw politics. Screw cultural movements. Does it make me wanna dance, sing along, or cry along? That's it. Most of the reviewers in the industry just don't understand that. (And, I just put up a post about it, they never give a positive review to "pretty" music. Have you noticed?)

Thanks for the linkage!

Rob in Victoria... er, New York said...

Thanks for the name-check and support, Whisky.

And I have to say, you really, REALLY don't want accurate and timely stats from the Canadian publishing industry. Trust me on this -- the numbers will make you weep.

Your impression that the industry is teetering on the brink, however: you're closer than you fear.

tpr said...

Crap, I was just going to write a book review on a remarkable volume of short stories I read recently...

Scott said...

You don't like polemics??? Damn, that's all I write! ;)

Yamdallah, you're right about "pretty" music and reviewers. I remember noticing it when Austrailia's Ben Lee released his new album Awake Is the New Sleep. In his early 20s, Ben's a veteran -- having been signed to a big label at 13. The new album is perfect pop -- light, catchy and stuffed with romance, earnest questions and Buddhist references. It's delightful and, of course, was utterly ignored by radio and critics.

As for Entertainment Weekly, all the reviews are gay because, yes, it's considered a scut job and only the gays care enough to do it.

Whisky Prajer said...

jim - are you sure you're not thinking of Surprised By The Last Voyage of Prince Lion, Witch and Silver Horse?

yahmdallah - eef. Thanks to you, "I'm sooooooaring / I'm flyyyyyyying..." etc.

rob - the crazy thing is, I was absolutely convinced of this "teetering" ten years ago. And yet, here we are, still teetering.

tpr - I pay even less attention to my own reviews.

scott - it looks like Your People are going to have to pull up their socks, man.

Scott said...

I've been saying that for years! ;)