Saturday, March 27, 2010

`A Deep Moan of Shame'

David Myers borrows from Tim Davis the notion of “reading skeletons,” defined by Myers as “the books and writers you will never confess to: those that cause, not merely embarrassment, but a deep moan of shame.” Not since late adolescence have I wasted much time on unmitigated, shame-inducing trash. Science fiction, Tolkien, pulp novels of any genre, Margaret Mitchell, Edgar Rice Burroughs – all target children of all ages, and I read them as a child. Discerningly ambitious readers begin as omnivores, hungrier than they are discriminating. Reading such stuff as kids gives them immunity against it as adults. It can't satisfy a grownup sensibility.

Myers mentions The Day of the Jackal, a Frederick Forsyth novel I’ve never read (I’m not sure I’ve ever read a “thriller,” unless Chandler and Westlake count) though I periodically watch the Fred Zinneman film version (1973), mostly for Michael Lonsdale’s Inspector Lebel and Cyril Cusack’s gunsmith. No one will mistake it for Tokyo Story, but trash in film form, though emetic as a book, sometimes proves palatable.

Myers cites the shame he feels for having once read a novel by Tom Robbins – probably the writer I have never read who has most often been urged upon me by people who know nothing about literature. He also mentions Robert Pirsig’s pretentious little bestseller. It was mildly readable at the time – 1974? – but even then I knew it was, in effect, a one-night stand. There’s no shame in that. We must read junk to recognize it and flush it from our systems, like a toxin that carries its own enema.

A good reader possesses intestinal fortitude and little capacity for regret. I often read books that will never be mistaken for literature – in recent weeks, a biography of Charles Addams, histories of Chinese calligraphy (my 9-year-old’s current enthusiasm) and Tin Pan Alley, a field guide to butterflies of the Pacific Northwest. I go to them not for the pleasures Nabokov and Samuel Johnson offer – elegance and incisiveness of language and thought -- but for the pleasure of new information.

The Welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas was a deeply self-centered, unpleasant fellow though one of the last century’s great poets, as Byron Roger’s The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas confirms. Rogers quotes the poet’s son, Gwydion Thomas, as saying:

“Why didn’t he read more? He had this extraordinary Stalinist approach, there were all these books he just wouldn’t read. And if something got a review, that ruled it out altogether. Yet he’d trawl Pwllheli public library looking for things to read, and his choices were very odd, books about penguins and whales. I used to drop little bundles of books outside his room, then he’d read them, and when I went back to university my mother would say she’d found him crawling up the stairs to fish books out of my room. I gave him the mediaeval history Montaillou, he was very fond of that.”

Filial resentment aside, Thomas’ account of his father’s reading habits is, on balance, largely admirable. Penguins and whales are among the most fashionable and least interesting species, but I too often read about fauna. “Stalinist” is harsh and Thomas is not specific about titles and authors, but all of us carry around conscious and unconscious lists of books we wouldn’t read (or reread) on a bet. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s book is superb.


Levi Stahl said...

That description of Thomas makes him sound like an Anthony Powell character--shades of X. Trapnel.

D. G. Myers said...

Fred Zinnemann’s film version of The Day of the Jackal is not trash by any stretch. All of Zinnemann’s films are high art—not high enough to give the nose bleed (no film is), but high enough to give you the willies. The film is a love song to police work. (And don’t you also love Edward Fox as the Jackal?)

One correction, though, Patrick. Trash must distinguished from the skeletons in a reader’s closet. A good reader need never regret the trash he has read. Like a bad meal, they nevertheless contribute something to keeping you alive. There are certain books, however—and they are not necessarily trash—that you wish that you could go back in time and unread.

Anonymous said...

I don't know much about art but I know what I like is the classic dunce's defence. The Latin tag 'de gustibus non est disputandum' may also be offered. Yes we have an immediate intuition of quality as Pirsig would term it but I would hold that we are also responsible for what we like. Whereas we can readily accept the dictum of Wordsworth that the poet who is original 'has the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed' the duty to form ourselves so that our direct reaction is sound may seem mere paradoxical bootstrapping. Here's where the concept of practice comes into play. MacIntyre takes the Aristotelian route with this moving towards the notion of connaturality. Pirsig's crooked path is that of a zen way (do). Apprentice yourself to the bench and it will teach you all that you need to know.

He writes:
" I think that when this concept of peace of mind is introduced and made central to the act of technical work, a fusion of classic and romantic quality can take place at a basic level within a practical working context. I've said you can actually see this fusion in skilled mechanics and machinists of a certain sort, and you can see it in the work they do. To say they are not artists is to misunderstand the nature of art. They have patience, care and attentiveness to what they're doing, but more than this there's a kind of inner peace of mind that isn't contrived but results from a kind of harmony with the work in which there's no leader and no follower. The material and the craftsman's thoughts change together in a progression of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact instant the material is right."

Rhetoric he would regard as the 'bench' of literature. You put yourself in the presence of 'the best that has been known and taught in the world' and let it, in the old sense, inform you.

But enough, I do not wish to impose on the hospitality of your excellent blog. Thank you.