Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why Read New Books?

Although it doesn't directly address the question I've posed in the title of this post, Levi Asher's post about The Kindly Ones made me take a moment to evaluate why I'm spending quite a lot of my time these past few days (and for maybe a week more) reading this beast. Is it because I want to be able to sort through the hype and the hysteria? Is it because I just can't bear to take another's word for what the book is, and is about?

Objectively, I have to say no, wanting to "form my own opinion" is not the reason I'm reading The Kindly Ones, or why I pick up any of the novels which light up the blogosphere, get two solid reviews from the NYT, one each from the New Yorker, the NYRB and LRB, and which divide or ignite opinion. Is reading these books an act of resistance—the independent-minded reader's bunkering gesture to close off the din and get to the bottom of the hubbub—or a craven acquiescence of a deeper kind?

No, I'm not talking about the culture industry or the society of the spectacle or any of that—I've long accepted that my ideas about what's culturally "important" are ineluctably the products of various organs of publicity and commerce, even more so than my ideas about what is "good." I chase hype far more than I chase "hidden gems." I'm as much a sucker for the spectacle as Joe Sixpack, though my choice of spectacles is, I think, considerably different. I don't think that difference is redeeming; it's just part of this conversation.

The rationalizing structure I'm thinking of is not about resisting or acceding to the culture industry's immediate mandates to read this book or watch that movie or whatever; what I find sort of unnerving is the way I rationalize my reading in the present as an investment, an accumulation of cultural capital, compounding interest annually by the interactions with other things I've read, to be cashed at, well, maybe a dinner party, or in class, or at a conference or something. The Kindly Ones will "pay off" at some point, hopefully, and my investment will have been justified.

I don't really think it's all that different for folks who pursue the "hidden gems" I talked about above—who elevate themselves above the tedious havoc of hype and read for the more exquisite pleasures of "quality." They just have a different investment strategy—a more risky one, perhaps. They may not run into someone very often who appreciates their filigreed tastes, but what a massive ROI when they do!

Then again, that may not be as risky as playing the hype market. There's a fair chance The Kindly Ones will not even continue producing dividends for very long, never dissertated or dissected, and the hours spent on it would have been better put to use buying into some widows-and-orphans stock—Montaigne, maybe, or Balzac. You can always get a return on Montaigne.

Of course, there's another way of looking at this investment. It's the idea that reading today's fiction better prepares you for reading tomorrow's fiction more astutely, with better comprehension and more vivid insghts. I would like to think this is what I'm doing as I read, that I'm continuously sharpening myself for the next book, hyped or hidden.

[I am still, well, enjoying's the wrong word, but this post isn't a product of any dissatisfaction with The Kindly Ones—I certainly don't mind how long it is, or even how slow I'm going. Actually, the novel unfolds magnificently—it's strange to say about a 980 page book, but it's paced really well.]

1 comment:

schultzie said...

...the idea that reading today's fiction better prepares you for reading tomorrow's fiction more astutely, with better comprehension and more vivid insghts.

In a way this is a reverse of a reason I increasingly finding for reading 'old' books - to better understand new books. This has become far more noticeable as I've started reading new books in German, since I don't have the background in the classics of German literature that I have in English literature I'm constantly encountering what appear to be references whose meanings I can't fully grasp.

Reading seems to be one of those activities that are both recursive-reflexive and accumulative (the word Bildung sounds so right here).