Thursday, July 27, 2017

without understanding a single consecutive page - advice for book bloggers

Henry Adams is for some reason reading Poincaré’s La Science et l’Hypothèse,

which purported to be relatively readable.  Trusting in its external appearance, the traveler timidly bought it, and greedily devoured it, without understanding a single consecutive page, but catching here and there a period that startled him to the depths of his ignorance…  (Education, Ch. XXXI)

This may be my favorite kind of reading, not so far from my experience reading Henry Adams.  It is rarer than it used to be, but plenty frequent.  “What is this?”  The move from not-knowing to knowing can be a deep, difficult pleasure.

I think many readers are searching for repetitions of youthful pleasures, perhaps from the moment they really fell in love with reading.  Which books will have something that repeats the pleasures of that intense scene in Jane Eyre or The Return of the King?  Not many, but what a search it will be.  I suppose I am doing something similar, even if the great experience was decoding Pale Fire’s index or thinking through the infinite loops of “The Library of Babel” rather than identifying with a character.  Some readers get this pleasure from philosophy, or theory, codes I have never cracked.  That set goes to graduate school in literature, something I never had the imagination to contemplate.

Eventually I discovered that the study of literary history is itself a giant puzzle to solve, and that texts that are not themselves puzzles, and are perhaps even terrible as art, are pieces of a larger puzzle, and that the puzzle thus has an endless number of pieces and no solution, which on a table-top would be frustrating but as an intellectual pursuit is perfect.  What fun.

Having accumulated nearly a decade of bloggy wisdom, my advice to new bloggers has not moved beyond “Know thyself,” useful fairly generally.  I knew I needed a strong schedule, I knew I would not take free books, I knew I would write short, although I swelled over time, I knew I was not so interested in “reviews” as such.  But when I started Wuthering Expectations I had been reading seriously for twenty years or more.  Twenty years is two thousand books read, which is twice as many as I had read ten years before.  I cannot imagine starting a literature blog in my twenties.  I have great admiration for the confidence of anyone who does – they, you, are right to do it.

I should have included more posts that were just lists.  People love lists.  I know they love lists; I love lists.  I am suspicious of them as criticism.  They have kind of poisoned popular music writing – ranking every Beatles song is the kind of writing that gets clicks, I guess.  But this is a blog, so relax a little, right?  D. G. Myers was good with lists.  I remember a commenter asking him what database he was using to pick his Top 5 I-don’t-remember-what novels.  “My brain!” he snapped.

I don’t know.  I read a lot of good criticism in magazines, but it was missing something.  I am not sure what.  May be just me.  Literary criticism was missing me.  And now it has had a fair amount of me.

1 comment:

  1. It's true: Except for a post I wrote on the Qur'an, my list posts were certainly the most popular!

    I haven't thought too much about criticism. Every so often, before I post about something (something that I really think), I hesitate and ask, "What will that critical person think? Are my thoughts naive? The opposite of what the author intended?" And then I find my fears unfounded, and most people are just surprised that someone is even reading all that much.