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The Reading Experience


An occasional blog on beautiful and wise books,  book writing,

book translation, and the reading experience.

These "cliff notes to culture" were published when showing up at a dinner party meant you would be expected to display your broad reading. People would literally judge you on how well you could quote Shakespeare and how insightful your comments on The Marble Faun were. (The what?) And how well you did on those subjects would determine whether you were invited to join Skull and Bones, or considered as a match for the young Miss X, or offered an early investment in the Pittsfield-Bulldock Railroad. Contrary to what some suggest, you were NOT expected to love Shakespeare or Hawthorne. But you had to know them and have a well-reasoned opinion about their work.

Two things come to mind about this:

1. It is a good thing for any field of cultural production when strong social pressure exists for individuals to cultivate it. But it is also good for the poor pressured people, too, as at least some of them will discover a pleasure in the process, a pleasure which will enrich their life forever.

2. As in all ages, we are judged on our cultural likes and dislikes today also. But today a well considered opinion on Shakespeare does not matter; while familiarity with a recent pop star and/or stand up comedian and/or news commentator does. And since I can't name a singe one of those, I am never offered an early peek on the PBR investment. So thank god it has been built already and doesn't really need me.

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I once lived in old Lisbon and not far from my place there was a landing with a broad panorama onto the river, all glimmering in sunlight most days. And on the white wall of the church someone had scribbled a line from Ary dos Santos:

È tão difìcil guardar o Rio Cuando el corre dentro de nòs

("How hard it is to observe the river As it flows right through the middle of us")

Later the city painted over the graffito. And soon thereafter another artist/thinker penned:

Pretos fora

("Away with Africans")

But for a moment there, Lisbon seemed magical.

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Several interesting and overlapping discussions on The (Facebook) Classic Literature Group have led me to some reflections that may be total bunk (most likely) or may yet turn out to be a stroke of genius and a true breakthrough in the science of aesthetics. (Nobel Prize Committee: please note I am old and you must hurry).

At any rate, it's something to chat about.

Namely, that brains/minds/personalities/sensitivities/tastes (not sure which term to pick) come in "flavors." What I mean by it is this: that there exist different, mutually exclusive, but equally valid kinds of sensitivities.

Call them what you want. Cohorts. Philae.

Take this as an example: the readers of Jane Austen. Some years back, when I was beautiful, I had a girlfriend and we were divided by an ocean. To keep us engaged, I realized, we needed joint projects. Among others, I suggested that we read a classic and talk about it by email/phone and left the choice of title up to her. She sent me Pride and Prejudice. And, well, I tried. Honestly, I tried. But I just couldn't. On page 60 or 70 I decided that the only thing I could honorably do was "lose it." So I got on a train and "forgot" the book on a seat as I got off.

I want to stress that my gf was not feeble-minded. She was smart, sensitive, educated, erudite. So I could not disregard her views as somehow unpolished or irrelevant. It's just that... she liked Jane Austen and I... found Jane Austen excruciatingly dull, dull beyond belief. They say, there is no accounting for taste, but maybe that is NOT true. My gf also liked War and Peace. I have since had many opportunities to learn that people who like War and Peace are usually also lovers of Jane Austen. So there is an accounting for taste. There is a Jane Austen/War and Peace kind of taste.

And that's fine. I don't have that taste, that sort of literature bores me to distraction--I want to scream--but I understand that perfectly fine people may like it. I honor and respect them.

Or take Fyodor Dostoevsky. Enough people whose intelligence I love and respect have sworn by Brothers Karamazov that I have attempted reading the thing twice. (The classic dog-and-vomit story, you might say). I recognize and readily admit that "Fyedya" is an accomplished writer--his language and formal tricks are brilliant (just recall the police inspector in Crime and Punishment joking to Raskolnikov about a thought "striking him like an axe on the head, what do you say to that, ho ho!") But I cannot stomach the man or his books. While attempting to read Brothers for the second time, I became so disgusted, so revolted with the book that, at one point, I stood up from my wicker chair and, with all my might, chucked the thing out the window.

Only over time, have I realized a few things about Brothers Karamazov. First, that I had done exactly the same the first time I tried reading the book twenty years earlier. Second, that others have had the same reaction (for some time I kept a running tally of BK-chuckers on the back cover page of my journal). Third, that several authors I love (Turgenev being probably the best example as he is both famous and Russian) could stomach neither Dostoevsky the man nor his books. And fourth that some famous writers of the following centuries just loved "Fyedya," Ernest Hemingway among them, and that those very same writers (like Ernest himself) happened to be authors I could not stomach, either.

Now, I respect these people. I honor their right to their taste. I readily admit it is refined.

Please, people, read Dostoevsky out loud to each other and do whatever else you do. I'm all for it. But please warn me so that I can move upwind. Fast.

I love literature, I love books. But there are categories of books I simply cannot stomach. And it does not seem accidental that the lovers of some of the categories congregate together. They have theirs, we have others. It's OK.

Now, dear reader: have you noticed this phenomenon? Are there categories of classics you cannot stomach? What are they?

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