PM Pick

Novel reading

When I used to study novels, one of the things that annoyed me most was the idea that I was supposed to take moral instruction from them, as though the writers has somehow seen deeply into the nature of human life and had a wealth of profound wisdom to impart in the form of a story about men marrying their servants or discovering their true aristocratic heritage. I had a hard time believing that artists magically secure some special insight into the way ordinary people get along in society or that they were in anyway morally superior and were in a position to dispense lessons about what it means to be human. The humanistic mumbo jumbo about exposing oneself to the great works and getting in touch with the extent of human possibility seemed like self-serving bullshit meant to allow the instructor teaching the "great works" to shine in the halo of the nominated geniuses. Sometimes, if the writers themselves and their works weren't held up as moral exemplars, the art of novel reading would be put forward as a morally edifying activity, one that taught readers how to be empathetic or more tolerant or more aware of the universal nature of suffering and joy and our potential as a species -- another convenient and flattering trope for literature instructors, who can dress up close reading as a kind of casuistry that improves students' moral calculation while setting teachers up as arbiters of what is most human. (Some of the ideas Hermione Lee surveys in this NYRB review of recent books about the grand enterprise of novel-reading echoes this theme, which is what suggested this topic to me.)

As much as I liked to have believe it was true, and as many insights about human life as I've been able to glean from novels, I remain skeptical of novel reading as an inherently moral activity. It seems to me that if you want to learn to be tolerant and empathetic, you probably need to actually spend time with other people learning about their ways firsthand and listening to what they have to say. Conducting a social life is a much more humanistic project than reading or writing novels -- novel consumption seems a way to escape social life if the prospect of it frightens you. Novel reading seems a convenient substitute for conversation, a hassle-free way to indulge in the pleasures of society without having to actually listen when you don't feel like it or come up with anything interesting to say yourself. When I was younger, I started reading novels out of loneliness and shyness, and if anything I tried to mask that fact from myself by dressing it up with the promise of edification. I read novels looking for those ideal interlocutors I was too tentative to search for in the real world.

The conclusion of Lee's review seems to suggest something similar about writers, that they write in order to conjure up the perfect listener, to fulfill a social need. Far from being a crusade, novel writing is better considered an inward, compensatory discipline. Lee quotes a passage from Edith Wharton's the Buccaneers to illustrate her point, setting it up thus:

The passage (in Chapter 28 of The Buccaneers, one of the last things she wrote) could also suggest the old novelist's sense of having been on a long road of storytelling, a road stretching on beyond the last unfinished page of her books, speaking as if to the faithful reader of the novel, who will continue to exist after her own journey is over:

In this great lonely desert of life stretching out before her she had a friend—a friend who understood not only all she said, but everything she could not say. At the end of the long road on which the regular tap of the horses' feet was beating out the hours, she saw him standing, waiting for her, watching for her through the night.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image