Books

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Reading as politics

The year 2009 will go down in history (or infamy) as the year that e-books and print-on-demand books became available to authors. Two years previous to that, however, both Goodreads and the Kindle e-book reader were introduced. Throw in Project Gutenberg and maybe a couple of others and suddenly almost anyone in the world had access to almost any book ever written. And instead of having to go to a research library to find reviews of these books (and, for the most part, try to wend their way through the critical jargon), they now have the ability to read what their peers are saying about the books. And most important, to write reviews themselves.

So here we are. Literature is divided between the literary and the not-so-literary, the oh-so-literate and the barely literate. And of course, books within sub-genres are rated differently than general works. For instance, if Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice deserves a 5, then nothing by Danielle Steel does. Yet Steel's novel Blue has over 1400 5-star reviews on Goodreads. E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey has over 561,000!—553,000 more than Pride and Prejudice.  It’s as if the common reader, who may not have a college education but still likes to read—or maybe graduated college with a degree in a non-artistic field—has decided that they need their voices to be heard. Sound familiar?

Well, think back. 2009 is also the year that President Barack Obama first took office. The ascendancy of an African-American to the land's highest office, as well as his eventual attempts to safeguard the rights of other minorities--immigrants, the LGBT community, Muslims, and the like galvanized the racist parts of the United States like they had never been galvanized before. Anyone claiming to want to dash Obama's dreams--like Donald J. Trump--was their new messiah. Not surprisingly, Trump is not a reader.

So just as the country is now deeply divided along ideological and political lines, it is also divided along literary lines, where—just as fiction becomes fact—good writing becomes bad and bad becomes good. Or rather, it no longer matters if a book is written poorly or not. But is this true? Maybe. After all, unlike President Trump's claim that his inauguration had about 3 times more attendees than it actually had, a book review is an opinion. As long as it is heartfelt and honest, one review is just as valid as another.  Instead of paying $10 for Jennifer Egan's A visit from the Goon Squad, that $10 goes to Colleen Hoover. So be it. But unlike scientific facts (the earth revolves around the sun) or mathematical equations (1+1 is always 2), opinions can change.

I honestly believe that some books and some authors are intrinsically better than others--that words are put together more carefully, relationships are deeper, subject matter is more important, locations are described more realistically, and on and on. Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is simply better in pretty much every way than anything by Dean Koontz, Lee Child, or Nora Roberts. But being intrinsically better is not the same as being demonstrably better. Education and training--yes, training in how to read properly--are the keys. As author Sara Warner notes in Down to the Waterline, her groundbreaking text on how to properly measure the boundaries of rivers and lakes, there is a line there. There is a difference between a bad book and a good one, an important book and one written for thrills, a book that makes you think and one that keeps you from it.  Fortunately, readers--and that's who we are talking about here, readers--have a good chance to evolve. Those who thrive on young adult fiction will someday grow up, those who read unedited werewolf e-book novels will someday get tired of the typos, romance readers will get tired of the formulas, and maybe one in a hundred will realize that Jane Austen is a far more satisfying author than Colleen Hoover.

And here's the neat thing: it's a one way ride. No one who enjoys Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills, or Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, or Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale, can ever be "trained" to prefer Janet Evanovich. 


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