Tag Archives: literature

Michael Jackson, Bookworm. Who Knew??

Just doing my bit to add to the overkill about Michael Jackson.  This bit from the LA Times.

Largely an autodidact, Jackson was quite well read, according to Jackson’s longtime lawyer. “We talked about psychology, Freud and Jung, Hawthorne, sociology, black history and sociology dealing with race issues,” Bob Sanger told the LA Weekly after the singer’s death. “But he was very well read in the classics of psychology and history and literature . . . Freud and Jung — go down the street and try and find five people who can talk about Freud and Jung.”

Hours after his death, Jackson’s 1988 autobiography, “Moonwalk,” despite being out of print, entered the Amazon bestseller list for biography and memoir at No. 25.

“I’ve always wondered if there was a library in Neverland,” Doug Dutton mused. Indeed there was — Sanger told LA Weekly that Jackson’s collection totaled 10,000 books.

Alas, I couldn’t find a single image of Michael reading a book, but maybe they are out there.

Poor Folk Redux

In the last ten days I’ve read most of Dostoevsky written before his sojourn to the penal colony, and a little written in its immediate aftermath,  but just a couple of more words about Poor Folk.  I’m intrigued by two aspects of Dostoevsky’s work as an artist.  For a first novel it strikes me as being remarkably sophisticated in terms of it’s narrative technique.  His use of gaps and empty places where the reader has to fill in the blanks keeps the reader working.  In this sense it seems to me that reading Dostoevsky is a thoroughly active process, something quite different than the passivity that people sometimes attach to reading.  We’re constantly being given bits of information in the letters that imply a world of fact, of allusion to a life beyond the text (though, of course, that life is a fiction of the text) that the reader must construct and fill in in order to make sense of the text at hand,  the “narrative” then is a process between the reader and the text itself.  We understand the text both by reading what is there, and by filling in what isn’t there.  The reader’s active participation is necessary for making means.

I hope it’s not just a deconstructive turn of some sort on my part, but I’m struck by how Doestoevsky is obsessed with both reading and writing throughout this text.  To this degree it strikes a fairly common tone in first novels—we don’t know what else to write about, so let’s write about writing—Joyce’s kunstlerroman “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” being the exemplar here.  But I find it intriguing in Dostoevsky that this isn’t embedded in the life of a young man struggling to find a voice, but in the consciousness of a middle-aged and aging man who never found a voice, whose struggle with language will, by his own lights, has proven fruitless even while writing is his stock and trade as a kind of scrivener.

I know I that I can earn but little by my labors as a copyist;  yet even of that little I am proud, for it has entailed work, and has wrung sweat from my borw.  What harm is there in being a copyist?  “He is only an amanuensis,’ people say of me.  Bust what is there so disgraceful in that?  My writing is at least legible, neat, and pleasant to look upon – and his Excellency is satisfied withit.  Indeed, I trtanscribe many important documents.  At the same time, I know that my writing lacks style, which is why I have never risen in the service.  Even to you, my dear one, I write simply and without tricks, but just as a thought may happen to enter my head.  Yes, I know all this;  but if everyone were to become a fine writer, who would there be left to act as copyists?

Who indeed? I’ve commented somewhere else on this blog of the peculiar cultural imperialism of writing in our own day, but perhaps every day.  I increasingly get English majors who have no interest in reading, who even claim to dislike reading, but who are obsessed with writing.  Everyman his own author.  So much so I have no time left for reading Dostoevsky since one must keep busy updating one’s blog, twittering one’s feed, and textings one’s faves.

But this is beside my main point for the day, which is the fascination I find in Dostoevsky who turns in a first novel to Poor Folk as his subject, not because they have a superior or natural style—as Rousseau or Wordsworth or Whitman might suppose—but because they have no style at all.  His work doesn’t seem intent on disproving that claim.  At the end of this text, one isn’t led to declaim endlessly on the natural style of poor folk that Dostoevsky has managed to produce.

No.  What’s fascinating is that he has made interesting and plausible the story of two people who are not of their own accord self-consciously interesting or stylish.  I am not sure what lesson of the day to draw from this, but when I come away from Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, I find that I respect them, but I do not admire them.  This is terribly politically correct these days, but it strikes me that it is pretty clear-minded.  I’m reminded, for some reason, of all those Christian artists who go about romanticizing the middle ages, and refuse to recognize that the life really was nasty brutish and short, even for most of the most exalted, and none of us would for one instance trade in our latte’s and air conditioning for smallpox, plague, and roast pig on a spit.

Well, I’m drifting now, but thought I should come back to this particular element of Poor Folk before moving on.

Finding ourselves, and others, in books

A nice piece from Colum McCann at the NYTimes on James Joyce and family memory.  I take it as a paean, of sorts, for the idea of literature as equipment for living.  An excerpt:

Vladimir Nabokov once said that the purpose of storytelling is “to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”

This is the function of books — we learn how to live even if we weren’t there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.

This is, in some fashion, confused, but lovely nonetheless

Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First–Poor Folk

Up until three weeks ago I didn’t even know Dostoevsky had written a book called “Poor Folk,” and up until last week I hadn’t read it.  I think there’s probably a dissertation to be written by someone out there entitled “Obscure Third Rank Novels by Great Writers: or, Non-canonical Aesthetics.”  Seriously, though, I think the continued publication life of this book depends a great deal upon the existence and reputation of its author and his attendant acolytes rather than on it’s inherent interest to a contemporary audience.  It’s evidence of Foucault’s dictum that the social construction of the author and authorship in a world is at least as important as the formal and aesthetic facts of the work itself in our receiving and treating of a work as important.

At the same time, Poor Folk surely rises above the level of a laundry list or a letter to an accountant, texts that only a scholar with no life or a graduate student with little hope could find endearing.  Indeed, third rank Dostoevsky is better than first rank Stephanie Meyer, whose tertalogy devoted to vampiric chastity I spent the better part of the past year reading so that I could claim that I was being a good father by reading up on my daughter’s obsessions.  (Mostly we argued over the fact that I see Edward, prince of vampires, as a model spouse abuser–smirking at Bella’s every half thought and more or less stalking her every move.  This analysis did not go over well.  I also find it bizarre and somewhat icky that Meyer seems to endorse the idea that men–whether werewolves or vampires–can find soulmates and life partners in women who are approximately one-sixth their age.  But that’s a whole nother blog and a whole nother argument with my daughter).

Back to my point.  Even though I didn’t feel gripped by Poor Folk, and even if I imagine it as bad Dostoevsky, it was better by several factors than most of the  schlock that passes for a reading life these days.  All of which points to two inconvenient beliefs that most of the literary academy these days seems to want to dismiss:  first, some books are clearly better than other books, at least in specifically aesthetic and formal ways;  second, and a corollary of the first, some authors really are better than other authors.  These seem basic and obvious things to say, but they aren’t so basic and obvious in the academy these days, wherein every author, giving evidence of our infinitely multiple intelligences and creativities, is good in his or her own special way and shouldn’t be compared to other authors in some kind of formal hierarchy.  I used to believe this, but as I’ve started pressing up against fifty, I’ve realized I don’t have the time or inclination to believe that everything is of equal value just because it is of value to someone.  So even though I only read this book because it was written by Dostoevsky, and even though the only reason I can think that anyone living today would want to read this book is because it was written by Dostoevsky, I can still see that it’s better than a lot of books I read for whatever reasons.

I’m not sure if Poor Folk gives evidence or betrays the later obsessions that characterize Dostoevsky’s work.  Largely because i don’t know much about Dostoevsky’s work at all.  It strikes me as thinner and less complex than the things I remember from Brother K and from Crime and Punishment, but I doubt that should be the standard.  What I do like about the book is its effort for psychological complexity, and the sophistication it displays in using the epistolary novel form.  I’ll admit that when I saw the title Poor Folk, and read a few comments on the book jacket, I was kind of ready for a lachrymose and sentimental journey into the heart of the poor–a Stowesque tour of life among the lowly.  Or perhaps, alternatively, into a reversed naturalistic sentimentality that depicted the deprivity of the depraved or the depravity of the deprived.   Native Son in a Russian key.  Novel titles linked to abstract social categories seem to shout–come learn about group X.

But I really didn’t get that in this book.  To be sure, there’s a concern with the way in which social conditions press upon the main characters, Barbara Dobroselova and Makar Dievushkin.  But I very quickly got beyond the feeling that these were somehow to be taken as pasteboard representatives of “Poor Folk,”  and instead they lived uniquely individual lives made of various and even competing levels of personal responsibility and delusion.  In moral terms, I never feel Dostoevsky sets the lowly innocent against the amoral or immoral forces of social might–as, usually, do both sentimental romance and naturalism though to different ends.  Instead, these characters are complex, partially self-aware, partially deluded, and partially free to make bad choices in restricted circumstances.  In other words, I think what I like about this book in the end is that Dostoevsky gives “Poor Folk” the human dignity to participate in the process of their own damnation.

Dievushkin, for instance, repeatedly makes really bad choices with what little money he does have, sometimes in the name of romance and sometimes in the name of drink–and that these two are linked as the usual occasions for his fiscal irresponsibility is telling as well since it’s not entirely clear whether his romantic attachment to the much younger Dobroselova is a love based in the purity of self-giving or in the mania of self-delusion–an escapist addiction as powerful as vodka.

For her part, Dobroselova protests throughout the book that Dievushkin must not be sending her gifts and money, that he is being dissolute and irresponsible in doing so when he has so little himself.  Yet one cannot help noticing that she never refuses, in fact, to take what he offers.  In the end, her decision to enter a loveless but secure marriage with a wealthier man does little to allay the suspicion that her relationship with Dievushkin is one–even unknowingly–of mutual enablement. Or disablement.   She feeds his addiction to love while he enhances her personal sense of moral wisdom, one on which she relies in making the apparent self-sacrifice in marrying a man that she despises. Yet this “self-sacrifice” is in the end the latest in a long string of decisions to live in relationships that guarantee her survival.

Yet they are without guile, sincere in their delusions.  This from the final page of the book as Dobroselova has driven off in to the sunset with her sour lover.

Nevertheless, as soon as I have received my next installment of salary I mean to buy you a new cloak.  I mean to buy it at a shop with which I am acquainted.  Only, you must wait until my next installment is due, my angel of a Barbara.  Ah, God, my God! To think that you are going away into the Steppes with Monsieur Bwikov–that you are going away never to return!…nay, nay, but you shall write to me.  you shall write me a letter as soon as you have started, even if it be your last letter of all, my dearest.  Yet will it be your last letter?  How has it come about so suddenly, so irrevocably, that this letter should be your last?  Nay, nay;  I will write, and you shall write– yes, now, when at length I am beginning to improve my style.  Style?  I do not know what I  am writing.  I never do know what I am writing.  I could not possibly know, for I never read over what I have written, nor correct its orthography.  At the present moment, I am writing merely for the sake of writing, and to put as much as possible into this last letter of mine….

Ah, dearest, my pet, my own darling…!

No, he won’t buy her a coat–or perhaps he will in all sincerity.   No, she will not write.  Perhaps they will both live out their lives with the delusion of a great love lost, though, in the end what did that love amount to except a pile of letters, in the language of love that sometimes seems in its abstractions more about itself than about another.   Or perhaps they will think of that love as eternal for a day or a month or a year, but it will drift in the end, an attenuated ellipsis wherein letters and words aren’t broken off definitively but drift and sway and finally fade into an indeterminate silence.

What I like about this finally is that “Poor Folk” finally isn’t about “THEM” and their circumstance, but about us, however idiosyncratic or complex or individual our own stories may be.  How much we live sincerely in the grip of our half-awareness, loving in ways that seem both self-giving and selfish at the same time, love seeming both to reveal to us the world as it really is and to grip us with a fantasy about who we might become.  There are probably books that do this better.  Maybe even books by Dostoevsky.  But even second rate Dostoevsky seems to do this well.

Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First, Part I

Ok, so “Book, the First” sounds pretentious and sooo nineteenth century, but given that my summer is going to be devoted to downing, devouring, deciphering, and otherwise drowning in 19th century Russian depressive Fyodor Dostoevsky, it seemed somhow vaguely appropriate.

(Sidenote, somehow I feel that it must be incumbent on me to make some comment on the fact that I HAVEN’T POSTED A WORD IN FOUR MONTHS, but I guess that I have arrived at the conclusion that, hey, it’s my blog and I’ll go dark if  I want to.  Not that anyone has missed me enough to so much as send a single note asking after my health and well-being.  For all any of you knew I had finally passed away of the heart attack that I must so richly deserve since I spend my days eating donuts and sitting at a computer rather than sweating off my sins like a materialist Puritan.  Ok, enough chastisement of my readers–who are apparently non-existent–for their obvious disinterest in my silent spring.  Back to Dostoevsky.)

Why?  you ask.  Why? Let’s say I ask that myself.  I remember a New Yorker cartoon of a guy on a beach being arrested for reading Dostoevsky, evidence of inappropriate summer time reading. (Yes, it is available on the web--check here;  I wonder if the New Yorker will send me a free subscription for all the traffic I will be sending their way.  I am not wondering too hard.)  Seriously though, I had a lot of things on my agenda this summer, and it looks like reading the gray russian will get in the way.  Among other things, it would be nice to go to the opera in Italy, or parasailing in Florida, or learning to kayak in the Alaskan hinterlands.  Who am I kidding, it would also be also be nice to get a massage at the Y and sleep through the night.  These things being mostly impossible or embarrassing, I do have longings to read.  I’ve wanted to spend a summer reading Vonnegut, or, since my late great hero John Updike died, maybe reading all of Updike never gave myself time to get to.  Or maybe J.D. Salinger, or Joyce Carol Oates, or the latest by Toni Morrison.  Instead I am stuck with Dostoevsky, the grey one, whose novelistic worlds i imagine in shades of black and white.

This verb, “stuck,” is, I realize, something of a heresy, isn’t it.  I feel that I should be a good example of a devoted reader, or at least an English prof–not always the case that these two go together.  Isn’t admitting that as the summer starts I can imagine pleasanter things to do with my days than Dostoevsky a little gauche, something like a gourmand or the food critic admitting that he could do without a weekly repast at Sardi’s, and maybe, just maybe, would be Ok with something a little more middle class like Chili’s or TGI Fridays.  Well, summer is for slumming, and reading Dostoevsky in June is a bit like working for a company that insists on dark suits and ties all summer.  Seriousness.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question.  The basic answer to the question posed is that I am directing an honors project for a worthy student who wants to go to graduate school, and will do well.  What he doesn’t yet know is that graduate school will quickly turn reading and all the intellectual and imaginative excitement that he feels for the world of books in to what Dostoevsky is for me, first and foremost: work, an act of labor, a responsiblity, something that must be done.

To be sure, it is always a great and guilty pleasure to get new books, especially when I can get someone else to pay for them since I am, after all, fulfilling the responsibilities of my position. I’ve taken great joy in the many packages that have arrived over the past couple of weeks bearing those weighty Dostoevskian tomes.  A bunch of Everyman’s library editions, and then other editions for those books no one felt were good enough to be canonized.  Among other things, who knew Dostoevsky wrote so much?  The Brothers K and Crime and Punishment.  The canon within the canon.  That should be enough for anyone, and could take a summer in themselves, but the list is almost endless.

And in order to know Dostoevsky, of course, I must read them all.  I have not yet started counting pages, though there are thousands.  I am like the bird in the old story around the campfire at church camp.  I fly and remove a single grain of sand from the highest mountain in the world, flying to the other side of the world to deposit it in my nest, returning trip after trip for a single grain of sand.  When the mountain has been leveled to  a plain, a single day of eternity shall have passed.

Dostoevsky, my summer’s mountain;  my summer’s eternity.

On Reading and Linearity; or, the virtues of disorganization

Ok, I’ve been hardpressed to keep to my commitment to blog at least once a week.  But (he says hopefully) did anyone really miss me.

Gina Barreca has a nice piece over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, where she talks about her own absolute disorganization as a personal librarian.  According to Barreca, book people fall in to two basic types: the puritanical organizers and the bohemian disorganized.  Both of whom look on the other with something of a pronounced moral disdain.

Personally I think I fall somewhere in the middle.  I am constantly anxious

What my library would look like if I were guilt-free

What my library would look like if I were guilt-free

about the disorganization of my books, which I suppose makes me something of a Calvinist.  Aware of my fallenness away from an ideal order, but also aware of my inability to do anything about.  Oh woeful disorganized man that I am, who will save my books from this body of sin and death.  Perhaps I’ll have to hire a life coach.

I’m actually genuinely interested in how Barreca described the effect of her disorganization on her reading.

So why do I prefer my own disorder to, for example, the brilliant ease offered by the books in my husband’s part of the library — the ones grouped alphabetically within their own periods?

For the same reasons I prefer a real-live bound, paper dictionary or thesaurus to a virtual one, which is the same reason I like libraries and bookstores, which just so happens to be the same reason I like reading promiscuously in the first place: You don’t know what delight an unexpected coupling will offer. There are literally unimagined pleasures arising from the surprising juxtaposition of unlikely words, materials, and texts.

How wonderful to discover what I didn’t know I was searching for, and what fun not to move, always, from A to B.

To some degree Barreca is flogging a distinction made by advocates of hypertext novels etcetera.  Typically, we imagine reading as a linear activity that procedes from beginning to end, and the supposed tyranny of the book reinforces this kind of reading process.  Always getting from point A to point B, no distractions inbetween.

What I like about Barreca’s offhanded comment is it shows how bizarre a picture of reading that actually is.  When advocates of hypertext declaim pompously about the superiority of networked reading in comparison to the tyrannical linear insistence of the book, I always think they have never really read a book, or at least their idea of reading is a game with which I am unfamiliar.

More typically we always read several books at once.  And we don’t read from beginning to end, we skip the dull parts, we read ahead to see if what we’re ploughing through at the moment is really worth it, we attend to the dialogue rather than the description, or vice-versa.  We forget what we read a week ago and start over, or we forget and skip forward to something that looks interesting.  We give up half way through and cast the text aside in despair. The form of the book has always been much more malleable than those hermeneuts of suspicion have allowed.

None of this necessary denies the superiority of hypertext for certain kinds of things, but at least in argumentation, we ought to give accurate pictures of what reading normally entails, so we can know how it is actually changing.

The Great Ones Are Dying

I’m sure I was the last to hear, but John Updike died this morning of cancer at the age of 76.  I was thinking of Updike just last night, an early literary hero in mybook, thinking of how all that gorgeous and absolutely beautiful prose towers over the ephemera that passes for literary writing today.  I know all the complaints, and maybe later I’ll explain why they are all hogwash, but for now I just know that he will be missed, by me if by no one else.

My first published essay as an academic was on Updike.  Following is the first paragraph:

In trying to explain to a friend how I could be fascinated, even in love with so sexist, racist, and superficial a literary monstrosity as John Updike, I responded that Updike’s prose provoked in me intense moments of cultural recognition, that even if I recognized other writers as abstractly superior; even if I am more concerned with Reformed theological individualism; even if the racism is egregious and the pornography is too often tedious–still, Updike is a homeboy I cannot give up, his inadequacies and genteel perversities too much like those of a brother or sister or uncle with whom we must stand arm in arm for family portraits, frozen in an uneasy embrace.

From “Scribbling for a Life: Masculinity, Doctrine, and Style in John Updike.” Christianity and Literature. 43.3-4 (1994): 329-346.

Bodies and Books

My good friend Julia Kasdorf wrote a book called “The Body and the Book,” broadly taking up the theme of contrast and connections between intellectuality/textuality and embodiment/materiality.  Karin Littau seems tolittau-theories-of-reading be mining a similar territory in Theories of Reading:  Books, Bodies and Bibliomania, a book I just started in on, though Littau is explicitly interested in reading as a bodily or material act, one in which affect more than cognition takes a center stage.

A couple of quotations and impressions from the early going:

Discussing early perspectives on novel reading on page 3–“William Wordsworth saw [the novel providing] ‘deluges of idle and extravagant stories.’ Insofar as ferocious novel reading also fostered disconnected and ‘higgledy-piggledy’ practices of reading (Schenda 1988: 60), it was thought that, ‘if persisted in’, it would have the effect of ‘enfeebling the minds of men and women, making flabby the fibre of their bodies and undermining the vigour of nations’ (Austin 1874: 251).  Like all addictions, those afflicted demanded more and more of the same:  more to read, more excitement, more tears, horror and thrills.  Bibliomania is therefore part of a larger cultural malaise specifically associated with modernity:  sensory overstimulation.  From the perspective of a theory of reading it shows that reading, insofar as it is either bad or good for the reader’s health, is in both instances conceived in physicalist terms.”

I think Littau is right here.  One of my commenters on yesterdays post apparently objected to the notion that we require permission to read.  But I really think I’m write about this for a big swath of Middle America.  There’s a long history of reading being seen as deleterious and slothful.  So in some sense we had to turn it in to a moral activity.  We had to quit reading for pleasure plain and simple and had to start reading for aesthetic experience, or meaning, or as a form or religion, or in order to improve ourselves.  This is deeply endemic to English deparments, and, I think, is one of our biggest failings;  we fail to account adequately for the grosser affective pleasures of narrative art which bring us our students in the first place.  Instead we have to imagine how literature improves their minds in order to justify our budgets.

I think that although I would grant Littau her premises here, that I would go beyond her simple statement of reading’s physicality to point out that these early and later continuing critiques of excessive reading have a moral dimension to them.  The sense that reading might have deleterious effects on the body, or, alternatively, that it awoke the passions and so had a deleterious effect upon self-control, both spoke to a much broader ethos than the simplistic enlightenment division between mind and body really captures.  There is a certain morality of the body associated with Christianity that isn’t captured in the simplistic notion that Christians despise the body.  Rather the body is to be situated and used and built up in particular kinds of ways because it is the temple of the holy spirit, and so forth.  Thus the physicality that Littau notes occasions a moral dilemma for the reader–one, frankly, that I still experience in a way.  Well, I’m reading, but I could really be out helping the homeless, or stumping for Obama, or doing other good works.  Or, more basically, I could be working out and trying to shave off all the pounds that I’ve put on over the course of my 49 years.  I truly suspect that if I read half as much and used the time to work out, I would be healthier (perhaps wealthier, perhaps wiser).  This is a judgment of relative goods, but the critique of reading isn’t as dumb and outmoded as it first appears.  How we use our time is an ethical conundrum, and so the fact of reading isn’t self-evidently justified, however many good moral benefits we may tend to attach to it as devotees of books.

From page 10–“Thus, the bulk of twentieth centiury reader-oriented theories, with some notable exceptions from within feminist theory, are concerned predominantly either with how readers make sense of a text (Culler, Fish, Iser, Jauss, Gadamer), how texts frustrate readers’ attempts at making sense (de Man, Miller, Hartmen, Bloom, Derrida), or how readers resist the meanings of certain texts (Fetterley, Radway, Bobo).  Thus, even when theorists turned away from an overly textualist approach to a more contextual, or politically engaged, approach, the production of meaning is still the primary concern.  By contrast, theories of reading before the twentieth century were also concerned with readers’ sensations.”

I think Littau is really on the mark here.  I remember sitting around with Jim Berger at a coffee shop called Kiari’s when I was teaching at George Mason University.  Jim and I would reflect on the fact that we didn’t know how to talk with students about the pleasure of literature, and didn’t quite know how to lead students into taking pleasure in more complicated and difficult texts.  I know that one of the great benefits of my undergraduate education was certain the ability to make and discover meaning in texts.  However, another huge benefit was learning how to take pleasure in things I could never before have imagined as pleasurable (Joyce’s Ulysses is NOT a natural taste).  I think we’ve shied away from pleasure as beneath the “serious” pursuit of ethical and metaphysical views of literature, but I wonder whether there isn’t an ethical dimension to the means and manner and ranges of our pleasure.  Finding ways to take pleasure in things that aren’t in our inherited bad of tricks is, it seems to me, a sign of growth and maturity and even, in some sense, an act of opening the self to otherness, a kind of ethical stance in and of itself.

I’m interested in how to take our pleasures seriously, how to learn our pleasures and how to learn from them.

Quote of the Day–July 24 2008

The following from Alice Walker



In nature nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can

be contorted, bend in weird ways, and they are still beautiful.


This kind of thing reminds me why I liked her and actually included her in my book. However, by that time Walker was well along in her efforts to become an oracle instead of a writer. Too bad. She could have been a great writer, The Color Purple and a few other things attest. Instead she often sounds like a half-baked version of Shirley McLain. Which leaves her about quarter-baked, I guess.

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Hard Times with Hard Times

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Hard Times is one of those books that English teachers make you feel bad about not liking.

Oh, I forgot. I am an English teacher. What to do that I found what some people call Dickens greatest novel so dull that it was not even engaging enough to be a soporific (Side note about falling asleep to books, books make us fall asleep best not when they are dull but when they are engaging enough that they take us to the edge of dreaming).

Seriously though, consider the first lines “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Isn’t it plain from this moment that the game is rigged. Who could not know that the speaker is a grind–well actually a Gradgrind–that he will get his comeuppance, and that the virtues of truth beauty and the imagination will out.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, that’s mostly what you get in this novel. The Gradgrinds, Bounderby, the Blackpool’s, they exist to tell us that industrialization has made the world go awry reducing everything to its material usefulness and leaving no room for the more spiritual world of the imagination embodied in things like–surprise!–imaginative literature. Of course there are details. Louisa Gradgrind marries the much older Mr. Bounderby on the basis of the practicalities of the facts and her father’s wishes, and we’re quite sure that she will be ground to nearly nothing, which she nearly is. She ameliorates her desperation by trying to help the laborer Stephen Blackpool and we’re nearly sure that Blackpool will die, which he nearly does. And then does. All parties concerned learn their lessons, including Mr. Gradgrind, who comes to realize that there’s more to life than facts, like his love for his daughter and his wayward son. Still, the love seems mostly to exist to make a point, and the point seems too familiar.

Industrialized Education

There’s nothing wrong with a thesis in a novel–I say this against all those who say novels don’t make points; I agree with those from Kenneth Burke to Wayne Booth who see fiction as a kind of rhetoric. But there is a problem with a novel whose thesis is baldly stated like an essay and whose thesis is never complicated, decomposed, challenged, reconfigured, or developed beyond what we can gather from the first sentence. (For that matter, there’s a problem with an essay written in a similar fashion).

I felt myself slogging along through the mud of the obvious and predictable, waking up just a bit when we finally get to the figure of Stephen Blackpool but descending again in to readerly despair when it’s obvious that Stephen is mostly a foil for the display of Louisa Bounderby’s sentimental charity, and later for the display of the pusillanimity and bourgeois moral corruption of Tom Gradgrind.

Stephen Blackpool and his mad wife

Stephen Blackpool and his mad wife

Stephen Blackpool, cog in Dickens’ sentimental machine.

On the other hand, I found myself wondering whether I found this all so predictable because so much has been built on a Dickensian edifice. In other words, would Dickens’ early readers have found his book dull and predictable or perhaps instead appalling, thrilling in its view of human degradation. Do we have a responsibility as readers to recover the shock of the new in classic works when they are no longer new?

I’m not sure. And I may be trying to cut Dickens too much of a break. I have read both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Douglass’s Narrative a multitude of times, and both are rife with moral sentimentalism, obvious bad guys, and endings that surprise only in their predictability. Yet I never find them dull. I will still be moved to tears by sections of both. So what it is it about Hard Times that leaves me cold, in the grip of something I feel I already know and don’t need to learn again, while I can read Stowe and Douglass (and Faulkner, and Hemingway, and at least some of Toni Morrison) as I read the Psalms, an ever renewing source even when I know everything that will happen.

Side Note: An interesting bit from Hard Times about reading. From the chapter where the town is beginning to hunt the falsely accused Blackpool, believing him guilty of robbing Bounderby’s safe.

“The factory-bells had need to ring their loudest that morning to disperse the groups of workers who stood in the tardy daybreak, collected round the placards, devouring them with eager eyes of those who could not read. These people, as they listened to the friendly voice that read aloud–there was always some such ready to help them–stared at the characters which meant so much with a vague awe and respect that would have been half ludicrous, if any aspect of public ignorance could ever be otherwise than threatening and full of evil. Many ears and eyes were busy with a vision of the matter of these placards among turning spindles, rattling looms, and whirling wheels, for hours afterwards; and when the Hands cleared out again into the streets, there were still as many readers as before.”

Me and My Aura

This is perhaps a fairly typical view of oral reading that occurred with regularity up until the 20th century. Now the only people who sit and listen to someone else read are either children or tony types who attend poetry readings. Still, I’m struck by the mystical aura of the word, the mystery and power that written discourse must have held for the masses of the illiterate underclass. Perhaps still holds for that matter. Still, it seems to me that the ubiquity of print has been bought at the price of its own devaluation. Indeed, the inflated presence of the word everywhere around us, where everyone and their mother can write–and indeed, where everyone does write, so much and so often, that no one really has time left to read–this glut of written verbiage has been bought at the price of writing’s (and reading’s) triviality.

Not that this dismal view applies to my own blog, of course. It’s infinitely valuable and more than worth your time. I’m sure it even has an aura.

For More of my summer’s guilty pleasures, see

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Black Snake Moan–June 30th