I was in the kid’s section of the bookstore a couple days ago with a girl, and as she showed me her old favorite books – Bread and Jam For Frances being, I think, her most-super favorite, although by the time we left she’d pointed out a veritable stack of favorites – my mind kept on touching on the magic of reading. Now, before you get disgusted and go do more important things on the internet, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not going to be some namby-pamby pretentious defender of reading: one of my friends here in Boulder works at the local Borders, and told me that “One of my co-workers is really cool, forty, has read everything – and he compares working at Borders with the priesthood.” Yeah. That’s not going to be me. The only thing that the priesthood and Border’s books has in common is (insert funny joke here).
There is, despite all the pretensions, a definite magic to reading. And it starts when we’re young. There is something primal, basic, and invigorating about stories. We shape our lives through the stories we tell about ourselves, and I don’t think it would be overreaching to say that when we, as little snuggly balls of children, demand to be read a story for the umpteenth-billion time, we’re really in part learning how to tell stories about ourselves, make ourselves up.
But once we start to read for ourselves, the magic really fleshes itself out. In the intense privacy of reading – in which we are alone with only our book and our thoughts - we are able to try on new stories, stories that we’d never be able to try on with our parents around. When we read those first young adult books, the ones with impotent crushes and even more impotent writing, we’re also finding a place where we can start to be ourselves without parents, without friends, without anything else but ourselves.
Now that I’ve given – what? – two hurrahs for reading, I have to say this: artsy writers right now have, by and large, gotten it wrong. There is a sense, in such a nice capitalist utopia as ours, that for anything to be art it must be motivated by wholly non-commercial reasons; it must be born far away from the mercantile demands of the crude mob. And so art is rarefied, abstracted from people’s everyday experience, inaccessible, and just bad. Why? Because if it was entertaining – how could we know it was good?
Just look, take a nice long look, at Damien Hirst. His famous work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is about the most pretentious, cynical piece of crap ever crapped since Piero Manzoni canned his crap and sold it for the current price of gold. It's also known as a female tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. The idea is that it is daring, conceptual, et cetra. But the idea is actually this: It is not pleasing, and yet it is valuable, so it must have some other sort of value to it above and beyond those values we know it ourselves to have – a conceptual, if not aesthetic value. We get into a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes moment here. Because if everybody is chirping about how the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets are so wonderful, or how Damien Hirst’s art is so fantastic, and you’re sitting there, a wide-eyed young undergrad, and you think: well, these people must know better than me – they being teachers and everybody else – and you’re likely to nod and say, yes, those rotting hunks of opaque jargon are, well, good artsy profound pieces of human creativity and wonderment. And then, because you need to write an essay about it, you’ll expound on your view until, forty years down the track, you’ll have been eating the offal of art and thinking it fine French dining - and writing even more convoluted apologies to get yourself tenure.
And this is even worse in literature. There is a lot of good stuff out there – David Foster Wallace and Marilynne Robinson, for instance, are gods on earth – but the whole act of writing and reading has this sense hanging over it that it shouldn’t be fun. Because it’s art.
Now look at all the wonderful stuff on TV: Deadwood, Firefly, Arrested Development, Seinfeld, The Sopranos – and the list goes on. Just because it’s entertaining, doesn’t mean it also doesn’t have to suck.
Not that there’s nothing more than entertainment. A really fantastic work of art can have an effect that goes beyond entertainment: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, does something more to you than Jonathan Lethem’s Gun With Occasional Music. Even though both are entertaining, Gilead leaves you feeling like you have had a deeper – for lack of a better word – experience. An experience that has somehow rung the bell of life more true, has sounded better its depths, has provided a sort of comfort against the strains of our daily energies. And not a lot of TV – even the best TV – can do that. And no TV show has yet done that task with any particular consistency.
But the distinction is not between high art which you need some special training to recognize and low art which is like Hostess Cupcakes, it tastes good but makes you fat and lazy; no, the distinction is between what you enjoy, what brings you understanding, what you find beautiful - and everything else. Not too complicated, eh?