Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A question...

A friend of a friend posed the following question:

"where does reading really get you, in the long run? Because I'm on the verge of finishing something like three books in a week, and I don't know if I'm at all a better person for it (true, it's two Stephen King books and the aforementioned Chuck Klosterman book, but they're still books and I still read them, so their questionable literary merit shouldn't be an issue)."

The following is my answer:

This question could be answered in a number of ways.

1. The "Literacy as pantamount to human progress" front
One could easily make the argument--and, in my opinion, be damn correct in making it--that literacy is one of only a few things that have led to homo sapiens ever progressing past caveman-dom. Being able to document knowledge, so it doesnt have to be relearned each time, is crucial to social "progress". Clearly, telling verbal stories is a start, and necessary, but once we could write all the shit we knew down, well, it just made learning whole lot easier. Imagine if everyone who learned how to use the quadratic formula had to figure it out for themselves, or if you had to try keep all of the laws of your community in your head. Certainly, on a small level, its fine. But you wouldnt get the booming civilization we have stumbled upon. Whether our "booming civilization" is better than one without literacy an entirely different question, but does make this justification of literacy a somewhat unconvincing one, depending upon your perspective on "civilization". Nevertheless, if you are pro-literacy, then you should be pro-reading. Man's ability to document information and then unerstand the information from its documented form is crucial to keep the information ball rolling. The problem with this, of course, is that writing may not be the most efficient, and is certainly not the only, way to document things anymore. Back in the day, you either wrote it down, or remembered it, or lost it forever till someone else figured it out. Now, we can take a picture of it, record our narration of it, shit, make a fucking video of it even. Thus, we dont necessarily need to be able to read and write. Communicate, yes. Read and write, no. Thus, this argument has some holes. But one could make it.

2. The "it will make you smarter" front
This is somewhat similar to the above argument, though I think it could also be made on the scale of the individual. Not only does literacy make a community, or even a species smarter, it also can make an individual smarter. We all want our kid to be the first in their class to read, right? Why? Because it means they are smart and will continue to get smarter and then they will beat the pants off the other kids and go to ivy league schools and make bank and we can out pretend lives through them, making them achieve all the goals we never achieved. Right. Anyway, reading prolly does make kids smarter. But, school smarts might be overrated. After all, reading may make kids do better on tests, but arent those tests just measuring how good they are at reading? Does that make them any better at life? Maybe, maybe not.

I would like to suggest that one reason reading is important developmentally is that while the "information" garnered through reading could also, as mentioned above, be obtained via video, audio, etc..., reading text alone develops a slightly different skill set. For one, it promotes a wildly more sophisticated and careful langauge than if we simply talked. Written word becomes much more complicated and nuanced and varied than spoken word. In itself, this might not be so great, but insofar as it broadens our ability to think about abstract ideas, it might. Showing a picture of peace isnt too easy. Of course, neither is writing a sentence about it. And to be sure, one could find a pretty good picture of peace, or a movie of peace, as soon as one could find a good book of peace. Nevertheless, writing gives us a greater vocabulary, particularily for abstract ideas. And it has been demonstrated that vocaublary directly affects and is effected by our thinking. If we lose certain words, words for which we might not easily retain pictures or movies, we might lose not just those words, but those ideas. What if we lost the word repudiate? Maybe it wouldnt make much difference. But it might. Moreover, movies dont leave nearly as much room for visual imagination. Will people continue to come up with creative "new" images if we only communicate via these images? Maybe. Verbal storytelling will help. But, if not, we run the risk of becoming a hollywood society, generating nothing more than imitations of what we already produce.

3 The "anything to help foster the production of good art" front

I'm not sure this would be as common an argument, but I believe it is the best. It rests, however, on a single principal. A presuppositional belief, if you will: Art has intrinsic worth. If you do not believe this, then this argument will be a tough sell. But, if you can jump on board with my claim that art--including literature, painting, theater, movies, pictures, you name it, my definitions are broad--has merit, all on its own, without needing to do anything, then I think that this is why reading is important and where "reading gets you".

For four years, I studied English Literature in college. I read books. We talked about them. I wrote papers on them. I tried to learn how the authors made the books. What made them good. How the authors made the books good. Ideally, I think I want to go to more school, and continue to study the same stuff--eventually doing nothing more than writing more papers about books and authors and the construction of books by authors and teaching all of that nonsense to more students very much like me. One could easily say that the whole enterprise is useless. What possible benefit could come of this. Essentially, it is a self-contained circle. I study only to teach, I will teach students who will eventually simply take my place as teachers. The connection of this process to the creation of art, which I have already simply accepted on faith as intrinsically valuable seems suspect. I do not create art. I have no intention of creating art. I simply read it, comment on it, and pass it along. One could argue that the act of "being exposed to art" is also uniquely and intrinsically valuable--that not only is the art itself important, but the appreciation of the art is important. Thus, by reading and "appreciating" and teaching others to appreciate the art, we are performing another intrinsically "good" task.

I think that is bullshit. I do not think there is any self-contained "goodness" in appreciating a piece of art. Any reader who thinks he is being great by reading a great book is hopelessly delusional. By simply reading and appreciating, he is doing no greater good than stroking his own ego, which, in my opinion, isnt to be regarded as good at all--not that its not sometimes fun.

The point is, looking at a great painting is not something anyone should be proud of. That the painting exists, however, I believe, is a good thing. All on its own. It is a creation of beauty and craft and simply by being, is good. But where does reading fit it? I have defended the artist, but what about the critic? Well, here we must accept another proposition--that the critic is of benefit to the artist. This may be a reach, and there are surely some who disagree, but I am of the opinion that all, or nearly all of the great artists of history have built their art, in part (not in full, in part only, but an important part) on the work of other artists and on the work of critics of those other artists and of themselves. Art theory--on paining, literature, film, whatever--really just boils down to a big manual for artists. Artists certainly dont necessarily use it as such, but it is a body of knowledge, a group of thoughtful viewers who, by carefully viewing and discussing and documenting what they find, reveal much of what is working behind a work of art. They will never reveal it all (if they did it would be a foul thing anyway because someone could simply do the same thing again, and we would end up with hollywood life, again) but they reveal parts, and these parts find their way into other artists' work--somtimes directly, because those other artists read the critics work and try to emulate, or sometimes becuase subconciously, artists simply borrow from other artists. one could argue that this process of artists borrowing from other artists is all that is necessary--that the critics could be done away with. In part, i disagree. Not all writers are the best readers, just as not all readers are the best writers. The critics thus ensure that a better job is done of delving into the artowrk (which is not to say they dont fuck up a lot, royally) and also perform some level of separating the wheat from the chaffe (again, fuck ups galore, but hopefully, fewer fuckups than accuracies). Yes, separating the wheat from the chaffe when it comes to art could be seen as entirely subjective, but having so many critics out their with different tastes may help to smooth those subjectivities out, and, ultimately, I do not believe it is entirely subjective. Certain works of art are simply outrageously beautiful. If we can figure out why that is, even in part, we can produce more of them, and producing such things may be just about the best thing humanity can do. Everything else, it seems to me, is just survival. The very frivolusness of art--the complete unneccessity of it--is what makes it, for me, of the highest importance. And it is where reading will get you, if, you chose to be the critic. Not professionally necessarily, but simply in a way that you think about a work of art and somehow document your thoughts, even if only in words to a friend. Those opinions, the constant evaluation of that art, will, eventually, find its way into an artist, and then to paper, or film, or whatever, and maybe, just maybe it will be great. And if so, though it is of the smallest chance, then the reader who happened to comment intelligently on somthing to their nephew who told his friend who wrote the greatest novel of his generation will have been part of something truly extroidinary, and will have fullfilled a role in the highest endeavor of mankind.

Alternatively, of course, he could take away something from a great work--such as in number 2 above--an idea of world peace, or of social equity, or of environmental activism, or of being great in bed--and, via his own self-improvement at the hand of the book, will have achived something smaller, but still imporant (practically imporant, even, unlike "art").

Either way, it probably does matter what is being read. But no one can say for sure what should and should not be read, or what reading will eventually prove to be beneficial. But ultimately, it's art. If art matters, reading matters. If art doesnt matter, well, what does?

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