Will you read anything that isn't chained down?

After Tiffany’s post, I’ve come across a number of items on the Intertubes about reading and the books people choose to read. They make an interesting cross-section, so I thought I’d pass them along.

Personally, I read some fiction nearly every single day, but I do so in part because it helps feed my own writing. I’m always curious about what it is that draws people who are not fiction writers to a novel or book of stories, when, after all, there are so many other things that a  person might be doing. Or what turns a possible reader away? On that front, Kevin Hartnett offers this counterintuitive internal observation — that the enervating spectacle of the political process wearies his spirit and leaves him nearly unable to read fiction. He says, “I have a hard time enjoying fictional characters when I’m feeling dreary towards the people who inhabit my real life. When I think about these recent months, and other times in my life when fiction has held less appeal, it occurs to me that a yen for fiction is something like my canary in the coal mine, an early indication, when it’s ebbs, that something else is wrong.”

Meanwhile, the redoubtable Jessa Crispin will not read Jonathan Franzen. She writes, “The idea that as a literary person there are a certain set of books you must read because they are important parts of the literary conversation is constantly implied, yet quite ridiculous…what you should read or want to read or will read out of obligation is determined as much by your history, your loves, and your daily reality as by the objective merits of certain works. If anything, the homogeneity of the responses to Freedom proves only the homogeneity we have in people discussing books in the U.S. It would take me, I’m guessing, four days to read Freedom, four short days out of my life. But here I am, refusing out of principle. I might think the book is a work of genius, the book of the century, but I’m willing to risk that loss, because the book I don’t read in place of Freedom might also be that book.” (I’m fully with Ms. Crispin on this. Books that other people think you should read come at you constantly, and if you read them all then you won’t have much time left to cultivate your own idiosyncratic reading list. My own process with a hyped book like Mr. Franzen’s, usually, is to mentally set it aside for five years, or ten years. After that period, if people are still telling me that I should read it — well, I’ll think about it.)

Finally, Evert Cillers makes me feel feel sorry for him with this essay. Here is a reader who intensely loves literature, loves it deeply and at an extremely high level, so much so that he can’t really bear to read anything that isn’t of the sublime quality of the great classics. He writes, “I’m a bit of a snot-nose when it comes to literature… Every now and then, I will pick up a book by a contemporary writer, mostly because they’ve passed the Michiko Kakutani test, since a writer has to be quite good to get a nod from this Manhattan Chainsaw Massacre reviewer for the New York Times. So I’ll read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles or whatever. And invariably, I’ll be disappointed.” It seems like a conundrum that Borges might have created in one of his stories: a man whose grasp of literature is so subtle and refined that all he can do is read Ulyssess and Moby Dick over and over again, while desperately wishing that someone — anyone! — write another such classic, so that he’d have something new to read.

Well, the writers of the world are trying Mr. Cillers. They really are. But for now you may have to settle for Mr. Franzen’s latest. Or you might prefer to wait five years, or ten years. Just try not to think about politics too much…

(Cross-posted.)

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