Book Smarts: Your Smut is Making You Dumb

An article posted March 26th, 2012 in The Atlantic by author Maura Kelly challenges us to commit to a Slow-Books Manifesto.  The idea is this: read 30 minutes a day, every day, mostly classics, to enrich your brainpower and ultimately your life.  Anything non-literary doesn’t count.  That means newspapers, magazines, non-fiction, or foo-foo reading don’t count toward your daily tally.  Ms. Kelly says, “By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details.

I call bullshit.

Well, sorta.  Any person worth their salt would agree that committing to reading at least thirty minutes a day wouldn’t be a bad thing.  In a world packed with immediate satisfaction (TWITTER! TEXTING! TEH FACEBOOKZ!), it’s good to have a bit of old fashioned mind stimulation a la word play and imagination.  So, yes, Ms. Kelly, we should read more. Where this crazy train derails is the attempt to define something as “literary,” or rather having literary merit.

Wait! We can’t stop here! This is smart people territory!  Please excuse me as I open up a can of semantic whoop-ass.

“Literary” is an adjective typically pertaining to the nature of books and writings.  So what we really need to decide, then, is: what is literature?  Merriam Webster says, “writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Oxford Dictionary says, “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.”

In other words, a work of writing consisting of excellent form and/or expression, typically dealing with universal and enduring themes has a high likeliness of being classified as “literary fiction.” Most people wouldn’t argue “the classics” as being literature.  There’s a reason we study them in school.  What bugs me is the notion of there being no merit the “lesser” fictions as well. Gah…lesser fictions.  Puh-leese.  I would imagine many romance novels published today would fly waaaay under Ms. Kelly’s “literature radar.”  Too bad for her because she’s missing out. Some of the most fascinating characters I’ve come across have been in romantic fiction (Jericho Barrons anyone? Smite Turner?)

I typically classify a book as “literature” when it takes a bite out of me and leaves a scar.  It doesn’t matter what genre it is, or whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.  Any work of art that manages to make me pause, stop, and think earns a merit badge in my ledger.  A good book is one that enthralls you and pushes boundaries.  It develops us emotionally. Now, let’s be honest – not all books can pull that off.  In fact, most are palate cleansers. But the thing is, we need the palate cleansers, otherwise we’d have no distinguishing sense of flavor.

Generally, I’m getting the impression Ms. Kelly is telling us to read “smart” books, books that are thick and packed with adjectives creatively linked together.  Well, here’s a news flash: Fancy words do not genius make.  Here’s an example:

Hope dangles on a string
Like slow spinning redemption

Vindicated, by Dashboard Confessional

Ain’t this hipster-lyric pretty? But What The Hell Does It Mean!?  If I have to read a sentence more than three times in order to understand it then something is terribly wrong. If reading is meant to develop the human ability to empathize and communicate, I sure as shit better be able to understand what you’re trying to tell me in prose.  “Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities.” If I walked around talking like this I’d eventually get the shit kicked out of me and have no friends, mostly because no one would ever figure out what the hell I was talking about.  Then again, people might just leave me alone because I’d be absolutely terrifying.

And never mind the fact that many “classics”  were initially published as serials.  Can you imagine One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez published in monthly increments, or Cormac McCarthy snippets in your daily newspaper?  The kind of changes the game, a bit, don’t you think?  Or at least the tone.

And can we talk about television?  Kelly writes, “Surveys show that TV viewing makes people unhappy and remorseful—but when has anyone ever felt anything but satisfied after finishing a classic?” First of all, a vast majority of Americans watch reality TV. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’m not surprised that the result of throwing the trashiest people together in a confined space and filming it is leaving people feeling “unhappy and remorseful.”  For the love of all things holy, there are some supremely amazing works of media out there that have made a permanent impression upon me.  I’m not even limiting this to movies.  Have you seen the season four season finale of Dexter?  I mean holy shit! Or what about the Doctor Who episode with Vincent Van Gogh.  God, I nearly bawled watching that.

I disgress.

There are few “absolutes” in life, and ultimately when it comes to judging aesthetics it’s all subjective.  A dense book isn’t necessarily more relevant than a fluff book. They each have their purpose.  At least that’s my hippie perspective, and perhaps the perceived notion of superiority in Ms. Kelly’s manifesto is what rubs me the wrong way.  And really, I think what she should be implying is “slow books,” not “slow reading.” But even then, what constitutes a pleasant and lingering reading experience for one may not be the same for another.

To summarize, stop reading this blog post, you moron. Pick up a book.  A big one.  A big, thick, long one.

 

Aaannnnnddd…that’s what she said.

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