Tuesday

[books] Bullshit

According to a contributor for The New York Times, books make you a boring person. In case you don't have a subscription and can’t get to the article, I'd like to post large chunks of the text:

There's a new piety in the air: the self-congratulation of book lovers. Long considered immune to criticism by virtue of being outnumbered by channel surfers, Internet addicts, video maniacs and other armchair introverts, bookworms have developed a semi-mystical complacency about the moral and mental benefits of reading. ''Books Make You a Better Person,'' a banner outside a Los Angeles school proclaims. Books keep kids off drugs. They keep gang members out of prison. They keep terrorists, for all we know, at the gates. This is what we hear at the 200-odd book festivals that have proliferated across America from San Francisco to New York. This, indeed, is what we hear during the N.B.A. playoffs! City dwellers vote and choose a single book for everyone to read at the same time. ''Read a book, save a life,'' one radio ad intones; and even in the absence of charitable contributions, this is very nearly what we feel we are doing. To be a reader these days is to be a sterling member of society, a thoughtful and sensitive human being, a winner.

It is easy to fetishize things that we imagine are on their way out. In the age of Comcast and America Online, books seem quaint, whimsical, imperiled and therefore virtuous. We assume that reading requires a formidable intellect. We forget that books were the television of previous years -- by which I mean they were the source of passive entertainment as well as occasional enlightenment, of social alienation as well as private joy, of idleness as well as inspiration. Books were a mixed bag, and they still are. Books could be used or misused, and they still can be.

Writers themselves carried on about their danger. From Seneca in the first century to Montaigne in the 16th, Samuel Johnson in the 18th and William Hazlitt and Emerson in the 19th, writers have been at pains to remind their readers not to read too much. ''Our minds are swamped by too much study,'' Montaigne wrote, ''just as plants are swamped by too much water or lamps by too much oil.'' By filling yourself up with too much of other folks' thought, you can lose the capacity and incentive to think for yourself. We all know people who have read everything and have nothing to say. We all know people who use a text the way others use Muzak: to stave off the silence of their minds. These people may have a comic book in the bathroom, a newspaper on the breakfast table, a novel over lunch, a magazine in the dentist's office, a biography on the kitchen counter, a political expose in bed, a paperback on every surface of their home and a weekly in their back pocket lest they ever have an empty moment. Some will be geniuses; others will be simple text grazers: always nibbling, never digesting -- ever consuming, never creating.

The point is this: There are two very different ways to use books. One is to provoke our own judgments, and the other, by far the more common, is to make such conclusions unnecessary. If we wish to embrace the first, we cannot afford to be adulatory of books in the manner of Moskowitz; we must be aggressive. Even a hint of idolatry disables the mind. ''Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books,'' Emerson reminded us -- at a time when he was, admittedly, already a middle-aged man in a library.


There's actually more of this garbage, but I don't want to reproduce it all here. The point is, I call "bullshit" on this Christina Nehring. I don't know what kind of book-readers she's been hanging out with but I don't think they're the mindless, self-congratulatory drone that she describes. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having “a comic book in the bathroom, a newspaper on the breakfast table, a novel over lunch, a magazine in the dentist's office, a biography on the kitchen counter, a political expose in bed, a paperback on every surface of their home and a weekly in their back pocket lest they ever have an empty moment.” Reading a comic in the bathroom is more fun than reading the ingredients on your tube of toothpaste whilst taking a crap. Reading the daily newspaper is more informative than reading the nutritional information on the side of your Count Chocula cereal box. A novel over lunch is better than being forced to talk to that lecherous co-worker who thinks he’s always getting away with staring at your breasts. A magazine at the dentist’s office? How else am I going to find out that celebrities are now naming their babies after fruit? A biography, a political expose, novels and weeklies… I see nothing wrong with reading these. Fucking hell, what’s wrong with this woman? When I read, I read for entertainment purposes not so that I can feel better/superior to other people.

1 comment:

Bill said...

You tell 'em sister! Neil Postman is turning in his grave.