Wednesday, August 30, 2006

How to Read?

Nick Hornby recently wrote an article entitled “How to Read”. That—once upon a time—was the title of a famous essay by Pound. For Pound, the title meant “What to read”, according to Old Ez. Hornby’s article in the Daily Torygraph (accidentally found via Gypsy Scholar via Chronofile) is more concerned with “What not to read”, according to Old Nick. The two versions of “How to Read” really represent the problem of reading in modern culture. Pound’s essay (yes, literary critics wrote essays back then) upholds literature: “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” Hornby’s article (the kind of fragmentary stuff written today by lad-lit authors) attacks any such idea on the basis that difficult stuff holds no pleasure and only puts people off reading. Ironically, Hornby also upholds the novel against the evils of television, yet as the Times Literary Supplement has pointed out with reference to Hornby: reading his work “is like reading television”, the experience is like reading a sparse script for a “sentimental film” suitable for relaxed television. “How to read”, in the Pound Era, meant learning what was valuable by encountering great works. The method resembled a walk through an art gallery with all the high moments of Art on the wall—exposure created the literary sensibility. In the Hornby Age, “How to read” moreorless equates with a walk through W.H.Smiths whilst obeying all the signs that say “LITERATURE BEWARE”, so avoiding exposure to anything remotely challenging. Neither method really addresses the statement “How to Read” because that does imply a methodology, some sense of how meaning is derived pleasurably from reading or even how pleasure is extracted meaningfully. Perhaps, both are needed to re-instate reading as a valid human activity.

The problem with Pound’s method is that it inevitably creates an elitist list, a fascism of reading. With Hornby’s method, the problem relates ultimately to a liberalism of reading whereby anything commonly fashionable will do. Meandering through Borders and Waterstone’s, today, I simply surveyed the difference between prose and poetry. Waterstone’s had 20 shelves and 6 tables given over to general novels…two shelves to poetry; Borders had 24 shelves and 5 tables for general novels…two shelves for poetry. The relative lack of poetry illustrates the extent to which the popular now leads, the degree to which Hornby’s belief in simplistic language dominates. When he talks of honing down the language of the novel, Hornby is really discussing the removal of poetical language from the novel—taking out anything that might challenge the reader—as if the erasure of simile, metaphor, complex characterisation, psychological and philosophical depth is no worse than removing additives from food. It is troubling that we have not developed a democracy of reading with, to borrow a phrase from Whitman, a democratic vista, such that we still exist in a culture within which individuals feel that they have to read Ulysses or read the Da Vinci Code, or have to have a favourite book. Neither the high camp nor the low camp seems to show much respect for the intelligent Common Reader. Of course, there are novelists, thankfully, who do not prescribe to either extreme, who refuse to be limited by style: authors such as Patricia Duncker who accept that language should match what you want to say, and what you want to say creates the language you use. The worst novelists today are those that try to write literature and produce precocious garbage and those who try to write journalism and pass it off as precious jewels. Duncker’s recent novel, Miss Webster and Cherif, for me, is worth reading simply because it treats the reader as worthy of the effort needed to write well.


Jeremy said...

I just came across your blog via the discussion of whether Adichie is revolutionary or not. I enjoyed your comments and agree - she writes a fine traditionalist line..

Re: your blog name, I wonder, is it Eshu as in Elegba or Eshun as in Ghanaian surname with talented London outcrop? I suspect it is in fact the hermeneutic dissonance in the space between..

Check our publishing site:
and our site for Lagos

Diana Evans' article on her recent trip to Nigeria (organised by Cassava Republic) is in the UK Guardian this Saturday. We were the people who brought Purple Hibiscus over to Naija a couple of years ago.

Shameless promotion over.. exit stage left.

eshuneutics said...

Thanks for your comment. I believe I have read your blog in the past (secretly). "a hermeneutic dissonance in the space between"? Would that be to do with aesthetical feedback? :) Now you can tell I HAVE read your blog. Nothing to do with Eshun--purely anti-hermetical. I will follow up on your e.mail: I approve of what you are doing: there is another comment to come, should mtb ok it, which fits with what you are doing.

Id it is said...

Writing is the end product of a 'spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion'. It may or may not be purposeful and/or erudite and thus may or may not make it to the 'literature' category. It's upto the reader to be discretionary and decide what he wants to read; Ulysses or the Da Vinci Code. hehe
However, there are those like Patricia Dunker who have both the content and the style to match, and they produce lierature of worth, but as you said,they're a rare species to find.
Interesting read, as always.

eshuneutics said...

"...recollected in tranquility." Yes, the key bit is "it is up to the reader." I dont find the rubbishing of those who read seriously any better than the trashing of those who read for amusement. Let people read War and Peace if they have weeks. Read Hornby if they have an hour to spare. But please let the young be acquainted with what might really offer them something.

Id it is said...

So who 'offers' these young readers appropriate literature? That, I think is the crux of the problem, at least here in the US. The younger generation is growing bereft of any meaningful (or even trashy)literary exposure whatsoever. Obviously, television is one major culprit and the internet is a close second. At least the latter could be a resource for some kind of reading but then who is to guide these young minds to what is appropriate on the world wide web that they surf so widely and willingly. Parents are either inept to do so, either due to time constraints, or else because they haven't been readers themselves. As for teachers; as you know they are so tightly bound within those antiquated and unrealistic curriculums that they have neither the time nor the incination to become reading mentors for their students. Pathetic and scary as this scenario is, I really don't know if a solution exists.
Sorry for the lengthy comment, but this issue is (as you may have guessed already)one that is very close to heart!

eshuneutics said...

Dear id it is, please do not apologise for your lengthy comments, I always look forward to their passion and honesty. There wasn't a single sentiment in your last post that didn't reverberate inside me. I wish I too knew the solution...even part of a solution. I wish you could see Shoot the Messenger because one of the most moving bits was when Joe berated Gemael for being illiterate and later refound him in the mental institution, with his superhero comic, struggling for expression. You saw one phrase in the comic "You can trust me." How the hell that can be re-instated I do not know. I have one close African-Caribbean friend, a gentle young man who can barely read. He says he is dyslexic, but he isn't: he is afraid. The ritual humiliation of teaching is to blame--just like Gemael. My world terrifies him, and he won't leave the dying black community around him. Why? Because, as he puts it, there nobody asks why he can't read. Of course, what I have just said is totally and utterly politically incorrect--I cannot say these things. But it is true, a truth that no one wants to hear.

Id it is said...

It couldn't have been mre aptly put!
I guess the world is indeed divided into two parts: those who read and those who don't, and there is no crossing over into each other's territories. Collective illiteracy provides false comfort in one part, and snobbery of eruditions breeds apathy on the other; the twain shall never meet.
However, I am not giving up...